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London’s Voice

15 May

 

 

“There are no unsacred places…” — Wendell Berry

Jet-lagged in the morning air, it appears that children have been at play.  St. Giles, once notorious for its desperate poverty, now dances in the morning light, its corporate facades aglow in primary hues.   To my sleep-deprived eyes they look first delightful, then wrong.  A distraction from the past.

We are getting reacquainted, London and I.  It has been awhile and my initial steps are unsure.  Heading east through Shepherds Market as the shops open for business, the streets are lovely.  But no amount of cobblestone can temper the exclusivity, the wealth, the whiff of unwelcome.

Thank god for Soho.  Gaudy and bright, the western streets certainly want to sell me things.  Shoes.  Clothes I will never wear.  All the fantasies of money and youth.  But I am not swayed, and as I make my way to Frith Street, the bling falls away and the old village reveals itself.

Bar Italia is abuzz with people who should be working – deliverymen, construction workers, neighboring shopkeepers, all huddled around the bar chatting with the owner as he hands a bowl of cappuccino to a raven-haired beauty.

“I’ll have one of those,” I say

Eyebrow lifted, he replies,”You mean the coffee or the girl?”

As the laughter fades I settle in.

***

In a way it’s the painters who have brought me here – Walter Steggles, Anthony Eyton, Peri Parkes, the breathtaking Jock McFayden and the brilliant Doreen Fletcher.  London painters, each in their own way capturing time through light.  For time accretes here and then, like paint, it wears away, allowing those with careful eyes to catch a glimpse the layers beneath.

And so, for a few mornings, I set off in search of a glimpse.  With cup of coffee, a warm croissant and only a rough sense of where I’m going, the moments come to me.

Lunch at Pellicis in Bethnal Green where tables are shared, strangers become friends and Nevs, only the third generation to run this cafe in over a hundred years, teases me about my British accent –  “You’re hopeless!” he cries, “Worse than Dick Van Dyke,” before sending me out the door with a free dessert in my pocket.

Kernel Brewery beneath its Bermondsey railway arch.  Beer I’ve been reading about for years but can’t buy in America.  After fervent discussion with the young brewer as well as other fiftyish men, bonding in our way, I make my selection and head back toward civilization.  I try it that night.  It’s OK.

Anna Jordan and Frantic Assembly’s The Unreturning at the Stratford East.  Three men struggling to return home. One of the most amazing theatrical experiences of my life.  Tickets bought on a whim.

The quiet of the Tower Hamlets library on a cold afternoon, the work of some of my favorite painters hung before me without fanfare, as if they were the finalists in a school competition.  Albert Turpin, Noel Gibson, Doreen Fletcher.  I have the room to myself and I take my time.  Getting close.  Taking in the detail.

The long, long walk up the Caledonian Road, the song of the place in my head, and the Sunday Roast at journey’s end.

Stepping onto the roof at dawn to watch the sky turn pink over Christchurch Spitalfields.

And Borough Market, where it all comes together.  The rough welcome under the old stone arches, where trading has gone on for over a thousand years.  The steam coming off the coffee in the morning air.  The sausage rolls, oranges from Spain, cheese that shows me what cheese can be and the bells of Southwark Cathedral, Shakespeare’s parish church, ringing over my shoulder.

A few streets away, unsure of what I’m looking for, I find Cross Bones.

In the 1161 A.D. the Bishop of Winchester ordered that the prostitutes of this parish, from whom he profited, be left to their trade.  They could not be arrested.  Nonetheless, when they died, they were not allowed burial in sanctified ground.  And so their remains, without ceremony, were buried here.

The land continued as a paupers cemetery into the 19th century before being built upon and cleared again and again. Twenty years ago the community reclaimed this small patch as a garden, and then as a memorial to the prostitutes, their babies, and all the outcast dead who have come to rest here.    Finally, in 2015, after more than 800 years, the land was blessed.

I am early and the gates are locked.  But the fence tells its own story, woven with flowers, ribbons, photos and messages.  Remembrances, many of them, of our own outcasts.  Women mostly; abused, struggling, lost.

I am struck by the beauty of the ribbons; faded, fluttering in the wind, their gentle shades warm against the dull winter sky.  And I listen.  Because somehow, in the very silence, this place is speaking.

 

 

An earlier version of this piece appears in the Summer 2019 issue of  Idlewild Magazine.