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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.




Whispers in the Distance

4 Feb

None of this was written in stone… — Kate Tempest

Perhaps it’s the photograph in the hands of my childhood neighbor, Ivy.  She and her sister before the war.  No sky, no grass, just a dark world of cobblestone and brick out of which smiles her little-girl face. “This is London, “she says.  “This is where I’m from.”

Heathrow, this morning, is an efficient surprise.  Passports scanned and I’m out the door in a matter of minutes, humming along on the Piccadilly line with its armrests and padded seats in the early morning darkness, blowing past the suburbs, straining to catch a glimpse of a slowly illuminating England.

It’s hours before I can check-in so, traveling light, I hop off the train a couple stops early.  Coming above ground to walk the streets of St. James I am reminded of the city’s scent, which I love.  As a young man it seemed an elixir of European cigarettes and the perfumes of foreign women.  But there’s more to it now.  The vast number of trees, the long standing buildings with their aged masonry and wood,  and the river.  These aromas I recognize, but of course there are others, still deeper, less familiar.

Passing St. James Piccadilly, I see the doors are open.  A sign says Friday prayers: 8:30 am, which just happens to be the time.  Stepping inside I take a seat toward the back and, lulled by the gentle call and response of a handful of parishioners, take a moment to settle amidst the warmth and simplicity of this, Christopher Wren’s favorite church.  I say a prayer of gratitude for this gentle welcome, then quietly leave through the door opposite the one I entered, left open to allow the neighborhood a shortcut from Jermyn Street to Piccadilly.  Passing through the courtyard and its preparations for the Friday market, I step through the gate and into the world.

The great illuminated signs of Piccadilly Circus stand precariously above the famous intersection, the buildings that have long supported them largely gone, supported by little more than scaffolding and cloth.  The world behind has been hollowed out, leaving London’s famous landmark little more than a facade.

Always a whirlwind of traffic and tourists, this has never been a place to linger.  But it has been a shared space, where friends meet and newcomers find their feet.  This morning it is largely empty, and as the gray skies brood and the lonely neon glows above the wet pavement, I feel a little lost. It all seems so small.

I long to be here, but it’s hard to say why. There’s mystery involved, which makes it hard to talk about, tending to exasperate those who, having made a religion of certainty, pretend to answers that are beyond them.  This would be funny were it not such an efficient way of pushing a pin through the butterfly of life.

I head off in search of Air Street, find it, and turn back for the view through the arches.  Life, framed by structure, to create beauty well over a century before I was born.  And here I stand.

No longer lost, I head into Soho.

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.