Greenwich Park, 1993. © David Secombe.
This Christmas season has a peculiar flavour, distinct from any other I can recall. The sheer weirdness of world events has imbued it with a sense of foreboding; and although I am old enough to remember the tail end of the Cold War and the fear of Mutual Assured Destruction, what we are living through now seems uniquely tawdry and surreal. Everyone seems to be casting around for historical parallels to contextualize the strangeness of the present. Thought For The Day pieties don’t really belong on The London Column, so I won’t rehearse the obvious. But, given that so many are casting around for runes to foretell the future, we might as well invoke the pagan underpinnings of the festival that is now upon us.
The picture above was taken in Greenwich Park in December 1993; the roe deer skull in the photo belonged to my companion on the day, an art teacher who was taking it into her class as a subject for a still life. It was she who remembered that we were standing near the remains of a Romano-Celtic temple, and she produced the skull as an fittingly atavistic prop. In its day, the temple in Greenwich Park was an excellently situated facility; an ancient world insurance bureau, handy for any last-minute sacrifices you wanted to make to Poseidon (or whoever) on your way to the Kent coast. And by 400 AD there might have been a lot of anxious sacrificial blood-letting at this temple, what with all those hairy Saxons and Picts … The retreat of the Romans from Britain has always struck me as being as comic as it is poignant; I’m thinking of the Romanised Brits, all those comfortable farmers and aspirational merchants, watching in dismay as the props of civilization gradually disappeared. No wonder so much treasure got cached at this time, buried for safekeeping and then forgotten. I imagine a party of bewildered civilians standing on the beach at, say, Richborough, waving off the last Roman galley, saying that the lads wouldn’t be gone long and that normal service would soon be resumed. I wonder how long it took for the reality to sink in.
And on that note …
Happy Christmas everyone.
DS: About a thousand years ago (1991) I spent a few months working with a BBC film crew – it really was film – making a documentary to mark the Queen’s 40th year on the throne. The camera/sound team of Philip Bonham-Carter and the late Peter Edwards, and the director Edward Mirzoeff (a sometime contributor to this blog) – had formidable reputations. I did not have a formidable reputation. I was hired in haste, the production already rolling, to take ‘stills’ and not get in anyone’s way. Naturally, I got in everyone’s way – most often in the viewfinder of Philip’s Arriflex – but somehow managed to avoid being fired.
My chief recollection of the project is fear: fear of getting in Philip’s shot, fear of missing my shot (the sound-proof camera housing I had to use denied easy access to the camera), fear of under-exposure in huge rooms lit by dim lamps, fear of saying the wrong thing … I even discovered a new kind of fear: that my Moss Bros penguin suit was about to collapse in front of royalty. At Windsor Castle photographing a state banquet I suddenly felt the elastic in my waistband give out; my trousers began heading south just as Lech Walesa was greeting the Queen Mother. The nightmares still recur.
I finally overcame my fears and managed to complete the project, salvaging some dignity in the process. Looking back, these images are souvenirs of a time that has become so distant. Who would have thought that 1991 would seem like such an innocent time?
Anyway, this blog post constitutes The London Column’s 90th birthday greeting to Her Majesty. Please be upstanding, and cue music:
All photos © David Secombe.
‘Bomber Harris looks like he’s pushing out a discreet fart’.
Thus observed CJ, of Sediment and Up North notoriety, as we stood in front of St. Clement Danes contemplating the statue of Arthur ‘Bomber’ Harris that stares balefully at Australia House. I could see CJ’s point; certainly, Air Chief Marshal Dowding is looking pointedly in the opposite direction, disavowing all association with his war-time colleague. On the other hand, Harris could just as well be evaluating Australia House’s chances of withstanding a thousand bomber raid.
CJ and I were drawn to this spot not by the relative dispositions of memorialized RAF grandees but to see if we could find traces of the ancient streets obliterated by early 20th century redevelopment. Australia House stands roughly on the site of Wych Street. Old Wych was described as ‘the prettiest street in London’ but the city’s civic class regarded it and its neighbours as inconvenient and unwholesome. An area full of theatres, bookshops, churches, inns of court and something like 600 historic houses, it was simultaneously a romantic backdrop to London’s intellectual life and an impediment to the aspirations of Boris’s Edwardian forbears. The planners won out, of course: cherished streets were cleared and replaced by monumental blocks of numbing pomposity. The names of the streets lost in this fatuous exercise in Haussmanism toll like a litany: Holywell St., Little Wild St., Stanhope St., Little Queen St., Clare St., Hollis St., Newcastle St., Houghton St. etc., … whilst the name given to the boulevard that eviscerated the old district could not be more deadly: Kingsway. Somehow, St. Mary le Strand escaped the surrounding destruction and now wears the air of a dowager trapped in uncouth company, sandwiched between the 1920s bombast of Bush House and the high Brutalism of King’s College’s 1970’s Strand Building.
Just behind King’s Strand Building is Strand Lane, an alley running down to the Embankment which is now a pedestrianised access facility for the college. CJ and I accessed it via Surrey Steps, and found ourselves in the company of an American tourist searching for the ‘Roman bath’ which may be seen through a window in the courtyard of the galleried house in the above photo. Despite the assertions of Dickens and others, the bath isn’t Roman at all, and is thought to be a 16th or 17th century cistern that serviced one of the grand houses that stood here. We were more taken by the anomalous regency villa-ette that clings to the vast bulk of King’s like a remora on a whale. More office space for King’s – except for the attic, where well-tended plants indicate a domestic arrangement. An enviable address? I thought so and said as much to CJ, who merely looked at me pityingly (he lives in Mortlake).
We walked back to the Strand, past the disused Strand tube station (now owned by King’s and rented out for film shoots), and noted the wholesale demolition of 1960s blocks taking place between Surrey St. and Arundel St. In late Victorian times, this area was the heart of literary London. Holywell St. – where Bush House is now – was lined with bookshops and stalls, many of which specialised in naughty titles, and publishers’ offices. The Savoy, journal of the Decadent movement, was edited out of the Arundel St. premises of Leonard Smithers, publisher of Wilde, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Symons, Dowson, even Aleister Crowley. Arthur Symons edited The Savoy during the 1890s and lived nearby. In 1912 he wrote an elegy for the London that had been destroyed:
The old, habitable London exists no longer. Charles Lamb could not live in this mechanical city, out of which everything old and human has been driven by wheels and hammers and the fluids of noise and speed. When will his affectionate phrase, “the sweet security of streets,” ever be used again of London? No one will take a walk down Fleet Street any more, no one will shed tears of joy in the “motley Strand,” no one will be leisurable any more, or turn over old books at a stall, or talk with friends at the street corner. Noise and evil smells have filled the streets like tunnels in daylight; it is a pain to walk in the midst of all these hurrying and clattering machines; the multitude of humanity, that “bath” into which Baudelaire loved to plunge, is scarcely discernible, it is secondary to the machines; it is only in a machine that you can escape the machines.
We crossed the Strand in front of the Law Courts, past a pair of loitering petitioners, and sidled down Bell Yard towards Carey St. The Royal Courts of Justice was built in the 1870s, a product of the same mentality that later perpetrated Aldwych and Kingsway. A vast area of housing was cleared for George Edmund Street’s neo-Gothic scheme; in The Times, 12 September 1866, their correspondent profiled the district that was about to vanish:
The extensive and complicated networks of lanes, courts and alleys covering the area bounded east and west by Bell Yard and Clement’s Inn, north by Carey Street, and south by the Strand and Fleet Street, lately containing a population more numerous than many Parliamentary boroughs, is being fast deserted. Massive padlocks guard every door . . . The ground taken by the authorities entrusted with the arrangements for the new ‘Palace of Justice’ includes nearly thirty lanes and passages, the names of some of which will be familiar to all who have made acquaintance with the topography of London. Here still stand some old houses, the very peculiar, perhaps unique, character of whose construction is worthy of a visit. The main frontages to come down are, northwardly, nearly the whole of the south side of Carey Street, and, southwardly, the eastern and western extremities respectively, the north side of the Strand and Fleet Street, crossing Temple Bar.
In the gathering twilight, CJ and I went for a quick jaunt around Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Outside the Royal College of Surgeons (Sir Charles Barry, 1833) we noted ostentatiously-parked production vans humming with the purposeful non-activity that is the exclusive preserve of film crews. We took in ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’ on Portsmouth St., a bizarre fragment of Tudor London which has acquired a spurious Dickensian connection and the aspect of a giant wendy house. But, as we are in Bleak House territory, everything has a spurious Dickensian connection. Dickens may have mined old London for his fiction but he also associated it with decay and, being a man of his time, was all for getting rid of it. The clearances and ugly ceremonialism of late Victorian and Edwardian London were driven by the logic of civil engineering yoked to the doctrine of economic growth. If traffic does not move fast London cannot grow; grand buildings are needed to reflect the city’s commercial/imperial status. … which, in the era of the Dome, the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail and Boris Johnson, shows that nothing has changed. The Times concluded its report on the 1866 clearances in bleakly familiar terms:
By the displacement of so many hundreds of poor families, the unhealthy courts about Drury Lane, Bedfordbury, the Seven Dials and other localities, already reeking and noisome with excess of numbers, have become more overcrowded than ever. The rents of the most miserable rooms have materially risen, and another entanglement is added to the difficult problem, ‘How and where are the poor to find suitable dwellings?’
On the north-western corner of Lincoln’s Inn Fields is a pair of Georgian houses that have for many years lain empty, their facades sooted in a manner that has almost disappeared in London. Now the builders are in, and I doubt whether the old soot will remain on the brickwork for much longer. CJ quoted Iain Nairn waxing eloquently on the patina of soot on London’s buildings, but I can’t remember what he said now. In any case, I nodded sagely. We both nodded sagely. Then we stopped nodding sagely and decided to go for a drink. We had intended to spend some time exploring fragments of the pre-Edwardian landscape on the western side of Kingsway, but that will have to wait for another time. It was dark and we were old.
We headed back to Carey St. and The Seven Stars, installing ourselves at a tiny table in the pub’s ‘Wig Box’ extension. We drank beer which is a bit infra dig for CJ as he generally only drinks wine, albeit of a fairly desperate sort (if you have read Sediment you will know what I am talking about). I mentioned that I have a photo of The Wig Box that I took in 1986 when it was still an actual shop selling legal headgear. CJ looked a little fatigued, ignored my last factoid and commented that is a bit odd for a 50-year old man to be quite so indignant at the Edwardians who refashioned London. He’s probably right, although I would counter that modern Londoners are experiencing a coarsening of the environment which mirrors the arrogance of early-mid 20th Century planning. Arthur Symons’s anguish illustrates the gulf between those who find joy in the city and those who wish to control it. Everything is up for grabs and nothing can be taken for granted. Enjoy your pint while you can. Cheers.
… for The London Column.
Pig’s head still life, south London, circa 1982. © David Secombe.
From the Hern’s Tribe website:
Mid-Winter Solstice (Yule): Outdoor Ritual in London
A special ritual to mark the end of one Mayan cycle and beginning of another. Join us for the Journey of the Fool, and quest through the 4 Elements to consecrate a magical Talisman. Anoint the Yule-log (yes a real one) with your wishes & hopes for 2013, and place it in the ritual fire. Then feast with home made bread, mulled Wine, some woodland tribal cooking. Don’t forget the Mistletoe! There will be Wiccan elements to this ritual.
Date: Saturday 22nd December 2012. Venue: Coombe Lane (From East Croydon station, take the `New Addington’ branch of the Tram, and get down at `Coombe Lane’ stop).
Yule celebrations in Wicca date back to the late 1950s. Most Yule rituals will involve the casting of a circle, a ritual symbolising the rebirth of the solar deity, dancing round the circle and the feasting ceremony of ‘cakes and wine’. Other Wiccan covens might base their ritual on the passing of power from the Holly King to the Oak King – a concept derived from British folklore. The festival itself is entirely Pagan in origin. Echoes of old Druidic fertility rites survive in ‘kissing under the mistletoe’. Santa Claus has been Christianized as Saint Nicholas, but the tradition of a gift-bearing man arriving at mid-winter can be traced back to Wotan (Odin) in Germanic folklore.
Feasting is a large part of all Pagan traditions and at Christmas this is still a principle element. The focus of the meal around a specific animal is certainly a residue of animal sacrifice, although the popularity for turkey is a modern development. We should not be squeamish about animal sacrifice, it simply meant butchering an animal for the benefit of the community with a small and usually inedible portion being ‘given’ to the gods. Modern sensibilities are usually too cosseted to even contemplate killing a chicken, so we should not condemn the past on our own rather feeble standards.
I would like to reassure my readers that the pig in the photo above was not the by-product of any crazed sacrifice, Wiccan or otherwise: it was prosaically acquired from a local butcher for the alleged purpose of making brawn, which was a fatuous attempt to disguise an equally fatuous artistic project. It was the early 1980s and I was an ambitious photographic student, my hunger for success exceeded only by the depth of my cluelessness. This porcine still life was shot on a cold December night in the back garden of my parents’ house in suburban south London, and was a study for – well, I wasn’t quite sure. It seemed like a good idea at the time … The transparency laid undisturbed for decades until it turned up in a cache of forgotten transparencies I found last month. I offer it here as a seasonal offering in a more-than-averagely bleak midwinter; we’ve still got a week to go before the solstice on the 21st, and if the Hern’s Tribe lot are anything to go by, the south London suburbs are going to be where it’s at if paganism is your thing. As for me, I’ll be indoors, watching an old Ghost Story for Christmas on YouTube. Or perhaps this … (and I’m sure you’ll forgive the shameless plug).
… for The London Column.