Sunday, 29 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk in London: The Madness of the People

London was the city of my birth. Just. When my parents were married in 1964, Wimbledon was firmly in the County of Surrey. By the time I was born in 1966, it had been shunted into the London Borough of Merton, and was thus part of Greater London. My parents, on the other hand, were proper Londoners, my father born in Fulham, my mother in Paddington. Of my grandparents, my father's father was born in Kent but grew up, and lived and worked and died in London; his mother was born in Battersea; and my mother's mother came to London from Ireland in the late 1930s or just into 1940, and never left. Further back, the earliest of my ancestors to be born in London was Alfred Samuel Haggis, born in Fetter Lane, on the edge of the City, in about 1820.

So, London is mine, and I belong to it, as it to me. Walking through, lately, for my training sessions with the CAB in Pentonville Road, through streets, and past buildings, which in many cases I had known from childhood, others from moving to work here for a few years at the turn of the century, was an exercise in both nostalgia for the past, and revelation of the present. One can only hope for the future. The dentist, in Tavistock Place, where I had a fluoride treatment which has kept my teeth in better condition than I deserve these last four decades; the optician in Wigmore place who prescribed my first glasses; the jazz club in Soho where I saw George Melly, and heard his rasping breathless singing, and his outrageous lewd jokes; the church I came to love as the most beautiful building in London, tucked away, under the shadow of Centrepoint, forgotten, and not loved enough, either before, or since. The assignations, the rendez-vous, the dinners, the operas, the exhibitions, the galleries,

It struck me afresh that London is full of everyone. We have, in happier times, prided ourselves on being a welcoming people. My own patch, Seven Dials, at the top left corner of Covent Garden, named after the seven roads which lead off a tiny little roundabout, welcomed first the Huguenots, and then the Irish, in the 17th and then 18th centuries. After that it was a free-for-all, although we claimed one of the first Indian restaurants in London (about the time of Independence and Partition). Within a few hundreds yards of my flat, you could eat Indian, and Chinese, and Thai, and Indonesian, and Korean, and Persian, and Indian, and Italian, and Spanish, and Greek, and American, and French, and every variety of English foods.

Whether we have always welcomed the people as warmly as their cuisines, I don't know. We certainly haven't been sounding all that welcoming of late, with our anxieties about who to let, or not to let, onto these shores. My walks in London this last week were instructive on that count. Within yards of each other, in Fitzrovia, I found blue plaques to Simon Bolivar, and Hector Berlioz. Each was only in the building for a year, but that year was deemed worthy enough to note and remember and remind others about. And just round the corner from the CAB, in Percy Circus, was a blue plaque to none other than "Vladimir Illich Ulyanov, or Lenin" who lodged there in 1905. If I remember rightly Russia was at war with Japan that year, and there was a domestic uprising. There's a frisson of historical irony to think that while all this was going on at home, Mr Lenin was sheltering in a foreign city, as the lodger of an English duke.

And within the sightlines of that plaque were council blocks named after Paul Robeson and Ernest Bevin. It's easy to forget that Mr Robeson was regarded as a dangerous socialist in his own country in his day, and that Mr Bevin, barely literate though he was, was regarded as one of the more effective Foreign Secretaries of the 20th century. And here they are, commemorated within paces of a man whose infinitely vaster legacy was as infinitely more malign. I recall reading that Bertrand Russell met Lenin once and described him as "the most evil man I have ever met". Curious how atheists just can't help resorting to religious language.

And then there were people to learn about. Not far from Messrs Lenin, Robeson, and Bevin, was a plaque to Edward Irving "founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church". Well, I learnt a little about this when I was at S. Giles, as both our PCC secretary and one of our churchwardens were Catholic Apostolics, and both very good and devout men indeed. The warden, Peter, was also warden of the Catholic Apostolic trust that owned their vast church in Gordon Square, which for a long time was borrowed by the chaplaincy of the University of London, but then there were differences about the ministry of women, and it was loaned out to Forward in Faith instead. Urban myth has it that Catholic Apostolics tried to stay around Gordon Square, because this is where they expected Jesus to come and collect his faithful at the second coming, and the church had been deliberately constructed on shallow foundations so that it wouldn't tax the might of the almighty to raise it entire into the air. Bonkers, really, but Peter really did say "one had rather hoped it would have happened by now", and he meant it. It turns out Irving had nothing to do with the founding of the church itself, although he was a fringe, trouble-making, radical, who perhaps laid rather more substantial foundations to make it possible. It is all but extinct now.

The other was a complete surprise - the Grant Museum of Zoology, in University Street, just off Gower Street. This is named after (or as the Americans rather foppishly say "for") Robert Edmond Grant, a Victorian scientist and collector, who left his vast collection of specimens to University College, London, and others added to it. It is the last such museum of its kind, and the most macabre, and wonderful collection of bits of dead creature. There are pieces of Dodo, skulls of mammoths, the skeletons of a dugong, and a curling python, the extinct quagga, and thylacine, and countless tiny things, including a whole illuminated room of creatures on slides, just to make the point that most of what lives, we can scarcely even see.

Maybe that's the thing, I wondered, as I trudged to the coach-stop along the backstreets to the north of Oxford Street, that most of what lives, we don't see. The foreigners in our midst, we don't see, and we don't mind - heaven knows, most of us are descended from some of them! But London, of all cities, has welcomed the outcast, the stranger, the foreigner, and though the people I pass on the streets on my way back to another city (although also on the glorious Thames) may not look or speak much like me, they are, if they choose to be, Londoners too, and for all I know, Londoners more! Under the benign and watery eye of Old Father Thames, we can all belong, and none need be endangered. I do so very much hope it will always be so.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
Michaelmas, 2013

1 comment:

  1. Enjoyed your blog, but was Ernest Bevin really 'barely literate'. Aetheists don't always use theological language: when Richard Chartres described Margaret Thatcher as wicked, Neil Kinnock countered, "She's worse than wicked, she's immoral".