An extract from Smoke and Mirrors
Admin’s note: There follows an extract from Stephen Grasso’s essay Smoke and Mirrors which features in a new anthology – The Wanton Green – out soon from Mandrake of Oxford. For more details and contributor previews, visit The Wanton Green blog.
In the earliest creation stories of London, Brutus the Trojan was caught in a storm on his voyages from Troy, and amid the wreckage of his ship was witness to a vision of the Goddess Diana, the virgin huntress of The Moon. Radiant on the waters like so many incarnations of Our Lady from the Stella Maris to the Virgin Caridad del Cobre, each appearing to those in distress at sea. Diana saved his life, and told him to build her a temple at the place where he struck land. He founded a city and dedicated it to her. Luan-Dun, the city of The Moon, and built her sacred temple upon the hill where St Paul’s Cathedral now stands.
London partakes of the nature of its mother. The Moon is both radiant and treacherous. Often obscured by cloud, it looms into view upon occasion offering a glimpse of the infinite. Moonlight and music and love and romance are all on offer, and we stare transfixed by the possibilities and potential. Moonstruck, our gaze is held by the promise of London, its cold hard paving slabs reflect the gold majesty of the Sun and we’re taken in by its glamour. The city is akin to a hall of mirrors, it offers all you can imagine, but its tableaus can be deceptive and distorted.
Trace the ghost of the Roman Wall eastwards and it erupts into physical manifestation, its brickwork unveiled by falling German bombs. Lost fragments of ancient London excavated by shell and shrapnel. The site of Cripplegate obliterated during the war and replaced with the concrete wasteland of the Barbican complex. Knock on the Cripplegate and it opens to the dead. Maimed ghosts and mutilated souls endlessly follow the thread of coloured lines painted on the ground, an inadvertent spirit trap that amps up the toxicity of the brutalist estate. The chasm of London Wall cuts through the haunted desolation and its disembodied traffic settles at Moorgate, a medieval gateway that was not a part of the original Roman edifice. Moorgate is the backdoor of the city, an escape hatch for a quick getaway or a secret entrance by which undesirables may slip in unnoticed to carry out their shady deeds.
The Moorfields were one of the last remaining areas of open land around the City of London. The now-subterraenian Walbrook River bubbled up from the Moorfields and flowed towards the Thames, giving the area its marshy liquid character. After the Great Fire of 1666, those made destitute and impoverished by the blaze settled within the Moorfields on the outskirts of the city, and the area became known as a haunt of prostitutes, outlaws and deviants. Today it houses some of the shabbier office spaces of the financial district, cheaper rents off the beaten track. When it comes to its Stews and Rookeries, the City has a long memory. Dreary concrete rules, and the iron steps of Moorgate tube are weathered by the heavy footfall of generations bred to open letters, answer phones and enter numbers in the new feudalism of financial services serfdom.
To the right of the Moorgate crossroads is the birthplace of John Keats, the lodging house where the sensory flush of English Romanticism drew an infant breath. To the left is Bedlam, the second location for the notorious Bethlehem Hospital. The original Bedlam was constructed in 1247 at the location now occupied by Liverpool St Station, and relocated to the Moorfields in 1675. Today, following another relocation, the centuries of misery and suffering that took place at the asylum are commemorated with a blue plaque above a branch of Pret-a-manger. City workers unwittingly sup their skinny Bedlam-mochas and bite into Bedlam breakfast croissants, oblivious to the history of cruelty that pervades the psychic fabric of the site.
Just north of the crossroads is Bunhill Fields, originally a Saxon burial ground, its modern name is a corruption of its historic appellation “The Bone Hill”. In the mid-16th century, more than a thousand cartloads of human bones were removed from the overcrowded charnel house of St Paul’s Cathedral and deposited at the site – a thin layer of soil spread over the fragmented remains to form a new gruesome point of elevation in the landscape. A century later, the site was used as a mass burial ground for victims of the plague, and later became a popular cemetery for dissenters and religious non-conformists. William Blake and his wife Catherine are interred upon the Bone Hill, their exact resting place is lost, but there is a memorial stone in the boneyard that overflows with offerings left by admirer’s of Blake’s visionary magic.
Yet perhaps the most striking element of the Bone Hill are its trees. Avenues of tall, spindly London Planes that claw at the sky like bony tendrils, mighty oaks and sycamores with roots that run deep through the ancient hill of bones, and sparsely scattered willows that seem to bend and weep for the departed like daughters of Our Lady of the Cemetery. It is a true bone orchard, under the patronage of Gran Bwa, who rules the island below the sea where the dead reside. At dusk, after libations of black coffee have been poured to the earth, it is as if the trees themselves are possessed by the ancestors. Great branches vivified by the wind, stark presences made of twisted bark, creaking figures of wood silhouetted against the night sky. The London dead make their voices heard to the living and speak of older cities subtly embedded behind the pulse and charge of our familiar streets.
Step south of the Moorgate crossroads and you enter the City proper. Trace the course of the buried Walbrook as she floods invisibly towards the Thames and you can almost feel her coursing beneath your feet, the true lifeblood of the city. London’s undine, shackled underground and all but forgotten like her imprisoned sisters. The daughters of the Thames, sunk under concrete and tarmac, wiped from the life of the city like victims of a Mafia hit. The Walbrook, the Fleet, the Tyburn, the Efra, the Ravensbourne. Brutalised mermaids buried alive, scorned and clapped in iron. But blessed water is an irresistible force, and though it may be bound and culverted, where there is a river, it will always remain. Press your ear close to certain grills and grates in the city and you can hear the siren song of the Walbrook. A bitter, plaintive lament echoing upwards from the gloomy sewers of her rotten dungeon. Seductive, beckoning, the rhythm of her waters entices any who can hear it to her embrace. At the sound of her voice, it is hard not to stop in your tracks, try to kick up the curb, rip up the streets to free the nymph cast in concrete.