Walking through the grey soul of London, looking up at the stars by Robert Kingham

By star guest on 16 Mar 2011

I have caught strange glimpses of a walk through Finsbury out of the corner of my eye since reading Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London. For him, its streets were an archetype: not ‘grand or imposing’, nor ‘squalid or desolate’, but instead seeming ‘to contain the grey soul of London, that slightly smoky and dingy quality which has hovered over the city for many hundreds of years’. Furthermore, he wrote of the fascination its streets held for Arthur Machen (1863-1947), a writer whose stories often combined a love for London with a deep fear of it, intermingled with a common theme of sinister ancient pre-Christian horrors lurking just beneath the surface of modern life. When I moved offices to Holborn in summer 2010, Finsbury came within mooching distance; and so when the Museum of London asked me to write and conduct a tour as part of its Urban Myths season in April 2011, I was determined to tread these streets as Machen had done 130 years earlier:

It was not until the winter was well advanced that he began to explore the region in which he lived… sometimes eating his luncheon in odd corners, in the bulging parlours of eighteenth-century taverns that still fronted the surging sea of modern streets, or perhaps in brand new ‘publics’ on the broken borders of the brickfields, smelling of the clay from which they had swollen. He found waste by-places behind railway embankments where he could smoke his pipe sheltered from the wind… As he went farther afield a sense of immensity slowly grew upon him; it was as if, from the little island of his room, that one friendly place, he pushed out into the grey unknown, into a city that for him was uninhabited as the desert.
The Hill of Dreams (1895-97)

Machen had restlessly traipsed across most of the new red brick suburbs. What kept drawing him back to this place?

Walk - Grey Soul of London

© Alasdair Mackenzie 2011

Today, unless you live or work there, the only reason for visiting Finsbury might be a trip to Sadler’s Wells. You can see the landmarks – Mount Pleasant Post Office, Old Finsbury Town Hall – from a bus going up Rosebery Avenue, a road which cut a swathe through the old Mount Pleasant slums in the 1880s: one of the last things old Joseph Bazalgette signed off before he retired. Or, from the tube at Angel, you might emerge above ground and make your way to the theatre along a brief stretch of the Great North Road where thousand-strong herds of cattle were once driven across the country to Smithfield, and like Machen you might snatch glimpses of ‘short flights of steps which lead to mysterious alleys or passages or byways going to nowhere in particular’. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a trip to Sadler’s Wells entailed a risky journey across the fields of old Iseldon (Islington). On moonless nights you were liable to be robbed; travellers would wait at pubs on the edge until a group had assembled, and then engage a patrol of linkmen to light them across the fields.

Sadler’s Wells was only one of many places of entertainment clustered around these fields, often springing up around chalybeate wells, the waters of which offered a veneer of health and respectability. The pleasures of the pleasure gardens became a secular pilgrimage. Listen to the opening lines of Ned Ward’s ‘A Walk to Islington’ from 1699, and you can hear Chaucer’s April showers:

In Holiday-Time, when the Ladies of London
Walk out with their Spouses, or think themselves Undone;
When Whores have a more than an ord’nary Itching
To visit the Fields, and so Ramble a Bitching;
When Vigorous Youth the young Damsel engages
In Meadowes, on Haycocks, or under the Hedges; […]
Then I, like my Neighbours, to sweeten my Life,
Took a walk in the Fields; but for want of a Wife,
Was forc’d to take up with a Lady of Pleasure,
Who I turn’d off at Will, and enjoy’d at my Leisure:
We saunter’d about near the New-River-Head,
Where we pratled and tatled, tho’ what ’twas we said,
If you’d have me Discover, indeed I must fail-you,
Because ’twas on Business improper to tell-you.

As well as the ladies of pleasure, many others who lived in the locality lived off the entertainment industry, including Joseph Grimaldi, and Henry Carey, the songwriter. Carey was the illegitimate son of the Marquis of Halifax, and the great grandfather of Edmund Kean. He lived on Warner Street. Carey was most famous for ‘Sally in our alley’, a song about a shoemaker’s apprentice wooing his sweetheart with a visit to Bedlam, the puppet shows, the ‘ups and downs’ (or flying chairs), and ‘all the elegancies of Moorfields; and from thence proceeding to the Farthing Pye House he gave her a collation of buns, cheesecakes, stuffed beef, and bottled ale’. Two centuries later, in 1931, Gracie Fields lived at 30 Myddleton Square while she was filming Sally in Our Alley, with its signature tune a reference to Carey’s original. Carey wrote many pieces for Sadler’s Wells, including a drama called Chrononhotonthologos, subtitled ‘the Most Tragical Tragedy that ever was Tragedized by any Company of Tragedians’, and which features a character called Aldiborontiphoscophornio. Sadly, Carey was found hanged in his house in Warner Street on 4 October 1743, with ‘one halfpenny in his pocket’. It seems that only after his death was his most famous poem first performed to music: it was ‘God Save The King’. Nowadays only the first verse gets an airing. The sixth verse, ‘May he sedition hush / And, like a torrent, rush / Rebellious Scots to crush’ is not really on-message.

Robert Kingham leading a walk (c) 2011 Alasdair Mackenzie

© Alasdair Mackenzie 2011

The place has changed in many ways since Machen trod the streets, scraping a living as a writer in the 1880s. He looked ‘with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts’. These same grey houses, a short walk from the City, have been thoroughly gentrified and now command seven figures. Yet, appropriately for an area where many different seeds of radicalism germinated through the ages (including Henry Hunt and the Chartists, and Lenin), these houses now sit cheek by jowl with some of the proudest post-war social housing projects, many designed by Berthold Lubetkin.

Yet Machen’s descriptions are still very recognisable and, as he noted at the time, visitors to the area may well experience strange sensations that time has not passed; or, perhaps, that events are cyclical. When Machen or his characters (who are often autobiographical) start to become lost in the swirl of London, it is the same labyrinth that trapped Thomas de Quincey, pennilessly wandering eighty years earlier. I had been pacing Thomas de Quincey’s streets as research for a film I made with Phil O’Donnell about de Quincey’s love for Ann (external link); now, pacing Machen’s streets, walking and walking to wear away the worries of work and family, it was all too easy to identify with these two forlorn pedestrians. They were no flâneurs, no louche observers of the city as spectacle; for them, there was an obsession and a compulsion to walk and walk, as if one day they could out-walk the city. De Quincey almost could: in the early nineteenth century he was able to gaze longingly at the moonlit woods glimpsed north of Oxford Street, a symbol of his romanticised rural past. By the end of the nineteenth century, Machen could not:

‘I am free at last from this mighty and stony wilderness!’ And then suddenly, as I turned a corner the raw red rows of houses would confront me, and I knew that I was still in the labyrinth.

In 2011, as we walk the streets, comforted by ales and anecdotes, are we the flâneurs? Are we voyeurs of history?

I don’t think so. The ever-present danger is of treating history as a medley of rattling good yarns, and lulling ourselves into believing that it can teach us nothing: that foolish things happened to other people a long time ago, and we are not prone to repeat their mistakes. As a character in A Fragment of Life puts it, ‘we are not called to sit as the spectators in a theatre, there to watch the play performed before us, but we are rather summoned to stand in the very scene itself, and there fervently to enact our parts in a great and wonderful mystery.’ London is not our little theatre.

And this, I think, is where the word ’psychogeography’ is misleading. It has, of late, as Danny Birchall pointed out, been over-used as a hip way of saying ‘local history’. I don’t think I’d offer to take people on a Machen psychogeography walk, not unless they enjoyed being hungry, cold and alienated. (Perhaps I could acclimatise them with a Chatterton Garret Experience.) No: I do local history. I will keep the ales and anecdotes, and lay off the shouty performance art, as what I’m really about is sharing the love of history that, sadly, I discovered fairly late, having not particularly experienced it at school. No, love is the wrong word. It suggests that I wander around wearing long scarves, hugging worn editions of Hugh Trevor-Roper. Wonder is a better word.

Finsbury - grey soul of London (c) 2011 Alasdair Mackenzie

© Alasdair Mackenzie 2011

De Quincey and Machen sensed the immensity of London. They tried to conceive of it in their minds as a sea, or as a constellation. The sensation of gazing back on the immensity of Time, of which London history is but one facet yet seems to contain its own infinity within it, is not so different from looking up at the stars. Once the stars have you – then comes astronomy, then comes astrophysics, then comes discipline and the furtherance of knowledge. And so with history: without that initial wonder, there would be no analysis, no scholarship, no striving for application and lessons learnt. If psychogeography is self-reflexively registering the obscure influences of the city in order to find out more about yourself, then local history calls for slightly more selflessness, and, like standing under the stars, makes you feel rather small and insignificant, yet, possibly, imbued with a greater sense of context and place. This was certainly my experience with Finsbury: there came a point where I had to stop, where I had to admit that only a lifetime would achieve more than scratching the surface. Machen himself wrote that no man has ever seen London, in the same way ‘that no man hath seen God at any time’, and (quoting Tennyson) ‘if any man could see a grain of wheat as it is in its essence, he would instantly become a raging maniac’:

There is wonder in everything and everywhere, wonder above all in this great town that has grown up so vast that no man can know it, nay, nor even begin to know it! […] We see appearances and outward shows of things, symbols of all sorts; but we behold no essences, nor could we bear to behold them, if it were possible to do so. […] No; we see nothing at all; though poets catch strange glimpses of reality, now and then, out of the corners of their eyes.
The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering (1924)

I am afraid that you will have to walk with me and see Finsbury for yourself to understand Machen’s glimpses of reality. It’s been worth the shoe leather.


A walk into the ‘grey soul of London’ – Walk
Robert Kingham takes a mystical look at Finsbury through the books of Arthur Machen, stopping at some historic pubs on the way.
Minimum age: 18
Fee £9 (concs £7): advanced booking required – click here (external link)

Dates and times
Sunday, 3 April, 17.00 – 20.00
Wednesday, 6 April, 18.00 – 21.00
Sunday, 17 April, 17.00 – 20.00
Wednesday, 20 April, 18.00 – 21.00

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