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Stumbling Past

27 Feb

 

The beginning is always today — Mary Wollstonecraft

 

Early mornings, on my way into work, I’d sometimes venture down the passages off Picaddilly, past the produce barrows and into the narrow lanes of strip joints and sex shops, the half-dressed working girls passing me on their way to breakfast, and then, feeling worldly and dissolute, I would scurry back out, doing both Soho and myself a disservice.

This morning it is all coffee shops and patisseries as I make my way across its square mile.  I’ve learned a little, but not enough to avoid getting lost, for Soho abhors a straight path.  But, being a small place, I eventually find my way to Frith Street and the home of essayist, critic, philosopher and painter William Hazlitt, of whom I know almost nothing.  But, having died in 1830, his home is now mine, at least for the next few days.  Quiet and discreet, I walk past before returning to be buzzed into the hush of this Georgian home.  Mischa, at the desk, greets me warmly, apologizes for not having my room ready hours early, checks me in, takes my bag and sends me on my way to Bar Italia for a cappuccino, and then on into the quiet morning streets.

Reaching the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue I find, to my surprise, Chinatown; the low sun making its way above the buildings and causing the red lanterns to glow above the cobbled lanes crowded with delivery trucks.  Finding my way from Soho to Leicester Square through Chinatown is warming.  A connection made.  For my knowledge of this place is immature, made of fragments gathered in younger years which I’m only now learning to assemble.

*****

The riverside marshes of Lambeth kept it largely undeveloped into the 19th century.  Intervening years have brought changes, but something is said to linger along Lower Marsh Street, the spirit of it’s damp beginnings and the raucous, working class settlement that followed.  And so I head for the Embankment, cross Hungerford Bridge and walk west along the south bank, taking in most of the major tourist attractions on the fly.  The Eye, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, done.  More fascinating are the coffee stands and outdoor bars that have popped up along the way.  I am wooed by the idea of a hot whiskey along the Thames on a brisk winter’s day and, not for the first time, I wish Amy were here.

At Westminster Bridge I hesitate, for the marshes are deeply buried beneath traffic and skyscrapers.  I move back and forth, checking the map until finally, turning down what appears to be little more than a driveway, I pass around an apartment block and through a tunnel beneath the tracks heading toward London Bridge.  There, in the twilight, I find a series of mosaics based on the work of William Blake, who lived out the end of the 18th Century in a nearby home.  Born in Soho, I have unknowingly followed Blake across the river to where I now stand face to face with both his demons and his angels.  Like so much of London, they linger, refusing to be driven out.

Turning onto Lower Marsh, I see neither water nor mud, but I sense a lower elevation, as if the street were a riverbed, along which flows a thriving community.  Shabby but spirited, the businesses seem to feed the lives of the people passing by.

The marshes were replaced, 200 years ago, by pleasure gardens, pubs and theaters.  The Old Vic remains and in the streets behind I stumble across Chaplin Close, named in memory of the little tramp who, the child of music hall performers, lived out his dire, Dickensian childhood here.

Just down the road is the New Vic, where the neighborhood’s historically radical spirit is still proudly worn, and turning into the narrow side streets of small cottages, I pass the home of Mary Wollstonecraft, looking comfortable and unchanged two centuries on.  For a moment we seem to share the same world.  And then I realize we do.

Further on I stumble upon Crossbones, the little patch of land where so many women and children were buried without ceremony.  A community garden, refuge and place of memory, it is open today and I step inside. But for all the greenery, artwork and curious guests, its soul seems to reside along the fence that surrounds it, in the ribbons, notes and remembrances of the struggling and lost.  Looking up I see the Shard in the distance, once again slicing the sky.

Borough Market is crowded, so I move onto Bermondsey.  Like so much of London I remember from thirty years ago, the empty streets and dingy arches have been replaced by bakeries and pop-up bars.  And although I can’t be far from my destination, I still manage to get turned around.  Giving up, I ask for directions and a young woman sends me on my way, traveling further than seems possible to regain the path I had somehow lost.

Jose’ appears on a corner and I work my way in, starting at the window but moving to the bar as things open up.  To my right a couple much older than I share their annual lunch, celebrating their decades of friendship.  To my left three girls young enough to be my daughter drink an astounding amount of red wine.  And before me Stefano, a young man from southern Italy, places jamon, boquerones, patatas bravas and a glass of sherry along with his dreams of New York, where the time is now 8am, which makes this my breakfast.

And as the food disappears, the girls drift away, and a second glass is poured, I think of my own dreams, how life has changed them, and how the magic lies not in their attainment, but in their pursuit.