Gasometer, Regents Canal, Haggerston. © David Secombe 2010.
After the Gasometers by Katy Evans-Bush
If those were crowns, the kings
must have stretched out underground
from Regents Canal to Stepney Green.
At that size, they were gods. But no,
the earth was level: a thick eiderdown
of chemicals and dirt, beneath the play
of air on iron filigree, the orange light
that danced at sunset through the rings.
… from Egg Printing Explained, Salt Publishing, 2011.
The Cleveland Street Workhouse and the BT Tower. Photo © David Secombe 2011.
The Cleveland Street Workhouse was built in 1775 as a workhouse infirmary and ended up as part of the Middlesex Hospital until that institution closed in 2005. According to The Cleveland Street Workhouse it ‘has survived largely unchanged since the Georgian era. Its austere appearance is a rare testimony to the bleak and utilitarian institution it was designed to be. Its back yard was a graveyard for the poor, full of dead to a depth of at least 20 feet. Recent research has revealed that the building was the likely inspiration for Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, since the famous author lived a few doors away, on the same side of the road, for nearly five years of his young life, before he became famous as ‘Boz’’.
As it is Dickens’s bicentennial year, I offer here a glimpse of the grim edifice that loomed over the infant Dickens’s early years in the city. He was only two years old when his parents, fresh from Portsmouth, found lodgings in Norfolk Street – now Cleveland Street – in 1814. At that time the area still had a semi-rural character, with fields and farms lying just east of Tottenham Court Road – although the grand houses of Fitzroy Square were under construction and the churning awfulness of Oxford Street was only a few yards away. Dickens’s friend John Forster said that the novelist was able to recall vivid details of his early childhood, so it is an attractive proposition to believe that the workhouse in the picture above marked itself indelibly upon young Charles’s imagination during the three years (not five) in which he and his family lodged in the district. By 1817, Charles’s father had got a job in Chatham, and it was another five years before Dickens returned to the city, leaving his idyllic years in the Kent countryside for a more permanent engagement with ‘the great wilderness of London’.
The traditional Christmas is in many ways Dickens’s own creation, marked in particular by his characteristic juxtaposition of seasonal conviviality against the bleakness outside: ‘exaggerating the darkness beyond the small circle of light’ as Peter Ackroyd puts it. Dickens described composing A Christmas Carol whilst walking ‘the black streets of London, fifteen and twenty miles, many a night when all the sober folks had gone to bed’ and, for all its fairy-tale sentiment, it succeeded in rousing the conscience of his contemporary audience. The following year he produced The Chimes, another seasonal polemic. According to Ackroyd, The Chimes was partially inspired by a complacent review of A Christmas Carol and also by a story in The Times concerning a young woman, terrified of the workhouse, who had thrown herself and her baby into the Thames – the baby drowned, but the mother was rescued and condemned to death for murder of her child. The Cleveland Street Workhouse was Grade II listed in 2011 and, given Dickens’s agitating for reform of the Poor Law and his disdain for old buildings in general, he would probably have been appalled that this symbol of misery had been preserved for the nation – but there’s no question that the building retains its cruel power, an emblem of the darkness and suffering against which Dickens created some of his most brilliant effects..
Further north on Cleveland Street is the BT Tower, built as The Post Office Tower in 1961, the tallest building in London for nearly 300 years (it was taller than St Paul’s), its construction flattening a block of Workhouse-era buildings on the corner of Howland Street, including the one where Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud had lived during their stay in the city. The cylindrical form of the Tower was intended to lend stability in high winds – especially, it was darkly muttered, those from a nuclear blast. The Tower is also Grade II listed, and it too is an emblem of its time, redolent of the Cold War and the avowed technological modernity of the MacMillian/Wilson ‘White Heat of Technology’ era. When it opened in 1965, it boasted a revolving restaurant at its top, a concession operated by Billy Butlin; but if a nuclear exchange had taken place, the Tower would have been essential in maintaining contact between whatever was left of Britain and whatever was left of everywhere else. Today, advances in communication technology and the end of the Cold War have left the Tower almost as obsolete as its neighbour the Workhouse. The revolving restaurant was closed after an IRA bomb incident in 1971, and plans to re-open the venue for the 2012 Olympics were quietly shelved – which is a pity, as it would have made a suitably elevated position for the ego of some superchef or other. But, as this is a Christmas post, it is pleasing to report that on Christmas Day 1984, Noel Edmonds’s Live Live Christmas Breakfast Show was broadcast from the top of the Tower, an event described by its coiffed and beaming host as ’one of the greatest communications projects ever put forward’. Noel went on to present several such Christmas Day TV events from the Tower throughout the 1980s, thus associating an icon of post-war modernity with the traditional late-20th Century Christmas: bored, over-fed and in front of the telly.
(NB: My friend and colleague Chris Brand has just pointed out that I have overlooked the Post Office Tower’s finest moment, in The Goodies’s Kitten Kong episode. Was this a Christmas special? Who cares.)
And on that tenuous and tortuously established link, we would like to wish all our readers a very Happy Christmas.
… for The London Column.
Mural, Chaldon Church, Surrey. Photo © David Secombe, 1989.
When I was a boy, Halloween was a shadowy, elusive affair; the occasional carved pumpkin glowing in a window; the occasional fleeting glimpse of a reveller skipping away in a witch’s hat – usually some person you didn’t know and had never seen before. As a festival, it was upstaged by Bonfire Night, and I was frustrated by Halloween in those days. There was nothing you could buy, or be given in connection with it. Today, there is a great deal you can buy, as a result of the promotion of Trick or Treat, by which Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night and ghostliness has given way to mock horror. In the weeks before Halloween, Asda stores offer, amid a landslide of plastic tat; the Asda Squeezy Eyeball, the Asda Rat, the Asda Inflatable Coffin, the Child Grim Reaper Outfit (‘one size fits all’), the Adult Grim Reaper Outfit, the Inflatable Pumpkin Cooler (not for cooling pumpkins, you understand), the Skull Martini Shaker.
Asda is American-owned, and Trick or Treat came to us from America. The British folklorist Doc Rowe, believes that the Trick or Treat contagion began with a programme broadcast on BBC2 in the early ’70s as part of a documentary strand called Look Stranger. It depicted life on the American airbase in Woodbridge, Suffolk, and showed the children trick-or-treating. ‘Within two years,’ Doc Rowe told me, ‘all the tabloids were running features on how to dress up for the occasion.’ But his point is that this was merely the re-introduction into this country of a tradition rooted in psychology.
It helps to think of both Halloween and Bonfire Night as outgrowths of the Celtic celebration called Samhain, which marked the turning of their year and the beginning of winter. Samhain was associated with the lighting of fires to honour the dead, and defy malevolent spirits. The medieval church both denounced the festivals as diabolic and sought to appropriate aspects of them in the shape of All Saints Day on November 1st (on which the sanctified are honoured), and All Souls Day on November 2nd (a more democratic honouring of all Christian souls). According to Doc Rowe, ‘By tarring Halloween with an occult brush, by caricaturing it that way, the church made it an occult event.’ But while the original Halloween might not have been thoroughgoingly sinister, it did incorporate games and rituals of licensed naughtiness. All Souls Day, for example, was associated with Soul Caking, wherein poor Christians would say prayers for the departed relations of wealthier ones in return for food – and you can see how there might have been trouble if the rich didn’t play along.
It is likely that these traditions, these precursors of Trick or Treat, were taken to America by Scottish and Irish emigrants of the mid-nineteenth century … so the Asda Inflatable Coffin is actually our fault. But Doc Rowe believes these customs are ineradicable in any case. ‘The more you suppress these things, the greater they become.’ Apart from the Church, he identifies the main suppressors as ‘the health and safety camp’. I know what he means, and I wonder how long it will be before the words ‘high visibility vest’ come up in a ghost story.
… from Ghoul Britannia, published by Short Books. © Andrew Martin 2009.
Chaldon Church is a tiny and ancient (11th Century) church tucked away in an unnervingly isolated hillside location about a mile north of the junction of the M23 and the ‘Magic Roundabout’ (a.k.a. the M25, London’s present-day Roman Wall). The church is famous for its terrifying medieval wall painting, described by Exploring Surrey’s Past thus: ’The mural on the west wall of Chaldon church is one of the earliest known English wall paintings – it dates from about 1200 and is without equal in any other part of Europe. It is thought to have been painted by a travelling artist-monk. The picture depicts the ‘Ladder of Salvation of the Human Soul’ together with ‘Purgatory and Hell’. Wall paintings of this kind were intended as a visual aid to religious teaching. The whole picture is in the form of a cross, formed by the Ladder and the horizontal division between Heaven and Hell.’ No photo can adequately convey the power of this mural, or the sense of unease I experienced whilst photographing it on a bleak, windswept afternoon 20+ years ago.The medieval imagination retains its capacity to disturb; and the thrum of traffic from the nearby motorways seemed very distant indeed.
See also: The Avoided House.
Charlton House. Photo © David Secombe 2010.
Charles Jennings writes:
Nowadays just another stop on the railway line, a part of the sprawl of outer London, Charlton has, to its great and inexplicable glory, one of the most stunning pieces of Jacobean architecture in the whole country. This is Charlton House, dating from 1607 and built for Adam Newton, tutor to Prince Henry, James I’s eldest son and heir to the throne. It is the most wonderful building, made all more wonderful by the drabness of its surroundings.
To get to it from Charlton railway station requires an uninspiring five-minute slog south on Charlton Church Lane before you reach the brow of the hill: a redbrick church – St. Luke’s – on the left, ranks of flats on the right and in the centre, hemmed in by a car park and a stretch of lawn, a fabulous dark red brick Jacobean mansion, decorated with white stone quoins and dressings, and with a great wedding cake frontispiece, involving a huge bay window and the main entrance porch. Sir Niklaus Pevsner claimed that Charlton House contained ‘the most exuberant and undisciplined ornament in all England’; while Ian Nairn drew a metaphor – aptly enough – from Jacobean melodrama, seeing the building as ‘Sinister poetry: the Duchess of Malfi in SE7′. John Evelyn, writing fifty years after the house was built, described the view from the house as ‘one of the most noble in the world, for city, river, ships, meadows, hill, woods and all other amenities’.
At the end of Lights Out for the Territory, Iain Sinclair’s epic psychogeographical trek across London, the author visits Charlton House and ruminates upon its brooding presence and desirability as a residence for an aristocratic version of himself. Psychogeography is a much-derided concept, and it has been derided in these pages more than once (most recently by Andrew Martin earlier this week), but Charlton House is the kind of place which makes one wonder whether there might be something in it. It just seems monumentally wrong. In the midst of the anonymous south London sprawl it is spectacularly incongruous, but it isn’t just that (in fact, Charlton is the only London village where all the traditional elements remain visibly intact: the big house, the green, the church, the village). There is something else going on.
I once made a short film in which Charlton House featured as the main location. The film was a sort of parody of the English ghost story tradition, three men holding a night-time vigil in the Long Gallery of the House in the hope of seeing ‘something’. When being shown round the building during a recce, we ascended to the Long Gallery in a conspicuously modern elevator. I expressed my surprise at such an unexpected convenience, and was told that when the lift was being installed workmen discovered the body of an adolescent boy walled up behind one of the fireplaces. How long it had been there, no-one could say.