Friday, 29 July 2011

The Hidden World Beneath London

"Tread carefully over the pavements of London for you are treading on skin, a skein of stone that covers rivers and labyrinths, tunnels and chambers, streams and caverns, pipes and cables, springs and passages, crypts and sewers, creeping things that will never see the light of day…”  Who could resist the enchantment of such words scrambling across the page? Not me, certainly, and Peter Ackroyd’s London Under had me hooked from these opening lines right through to the final sentence.

It’s a volume which is far less dense – and a whole lot thinner – than his previous works on the city, London:The Biography and Thames:Sacred River, but it is every bit as fascinating. I’d describe it as an hors d’oeuvre rather than a main course, which leaves you wanting more but is nonetheless immensely enjoyable.

There can be few of us who are not intrigued by the hidden places beneath the ground: indeed, from the dawn of time man’s imagination has been gripped by the magic, menace and mystery of caves and caverns. In myths and legends in a multitude of cultures the underworld is the abode of the dead, while for Christians Hell is somewhere down below. Ackroyd touches on all these aspects and takes on a journey from the stone age to the 21st
century, through ruined buildings, crypts, cemeteries, catacombs, temples, cellars, sewers, tunnels, bunkers, lost rivers and, of course, the London Underground.

Along the way we meet ancient gods, ghosts, smugglers, criminals, sewermen, mudlarks, engineers, miners, writers, sculptors and a host of other characters. Then there are the animals: rats, eels, mice, frogs, mosquitoes which have evolved to live in the dark, stray dogs, pigeons who have lost their way and, if rumour is true, the odd scorpion and crab.
Past and present rub shoulders as he explores the detritus of the city’s past lives: coins jewellery toys, domestic artefacts, workmen’s tools, religious idols.

My imagination is captured by the hidden rivers, enclosed, diverted, covered over. This section called to mind UA Fanthorpe’s Rising Damp, with its list of names like a litany for a lost world:
“At our feet they lie low,
The little fervent underground
Rivers of London
Effra, Graveney, Falcon, Quaggy,
Wandle, Walbrook, Tyburn, Fleet
Whose names are disfigured,
Frayed, effaced.”   
The waterways, once filled with fish below the surface and packed with boats above - King Canute sailed up the Effra, while Wren turned part of the Fleet into a Venetian-style 'canal' with a bridge and wharves. However, there were always problems of pollution and eventually these rivers were channelled underground.
I've included this picture of Entrance to the Fleet River
(School of Samuel Scott) because I like it - it's not in the book!
Most haunting of all are the lost and ruined lives of the men who contructed tunnels for sewers and trains as disease, floods, gases, fire and explosions took their toll, and the creation of the Tube network left devastation above ground as well, for it involved the demolition of thousands of homes. Since the early Underground trains were coal-fired, there were risks for travellers and workers: as a protection against the sulphurous fumes guards sought permission to grow beards, while passengers who were overcome were taken to a chemist for a ‘remedial’ mixture.

Ackroyd is a very erudite writer. The breadth of his knowledge is astounding but he's never dull or heavy-going, and he leaves clues so we can find the sites where overground and underground are linked. They are places of transition between one world and the other, like the grating where you hear the rushing water of the Fleet, or the door at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading to government tunnels under Whitehall.

I only had two criticisms. Firstly, the quality of the illustrations was not as good as it could have been, and secondly some maps would have been useful.

Verdict: was a fascinating read and I didn’t want it to end. If I could sneak this book on to a shelf I would, but it must go back to the library. To read UA Fanthorpe's poem Rising Damp (with notes) go to  the Independent website at

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A Flying Nun and a Holy Apple

I had a review all ready to post – but I got sidetracked by my FB Saint of the Day, Our Venerable Mother Irene of Chrysovalantou, a ninth century abbess who levitated, saw  visions of angels, and was granted three holy apples from St John the Theologian.
So I reached for my copy of The 27th Kingdom by Alice Thomas Ellis (which, alas, is a clear illustration of why one really shouldn’t read in the bath – it may be good for the soul, but it’s definitely not good for a book, and as a result this one is badly crinkled). Anyway, in case you’re wondering, there is a link, because the novel features a levitating nun and an immaculate apple. Was Alice Thomas Ellis aware of the story of St Irene I wonder? I like to think she was.
For those of you who don’t know, Alice Thomas Ellis was the nom de plume of Anna Haycraft who was brought up by atheist parents in the Church of Humanity, but became a fervent Catholic in her teens, when she entered a convent as a postulate. However, ill health forced her to leave before taking vows.
These days, sadly, she is neither as well read nor as well known (and they are not the same thing) as she should be. She reminds me of Muriel Spark, but with a darker edge, and her slender novels are more surreal and macabre, with mysterious supernatural elements. There’s also a strong vein of humour in this particular novel, which is a kind of comedy of manners, a social satire in which lies are revealed and hypocrisies peeled away, and the end justifies the means when God’s Will coincides with that of Man, with chaotic results.
The scene is Bohemian Chelsea in 1954, where Aunt Irene (‘pronounced Irina’) has just received a letter from her sister, the Reverend Mother of a Welsh convent, asking her to take in a postulate who must test her vocation in the world. What the Reverend Mother does not reveal is that the young nun is possessed of miraculous powers: not only does Valentine levitate herself, but an apple she has picked remains fresh many months later.
The Reverend Mother is a pragmatist. She knows ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing, as tiresome, exhausting and troublesome’ as a miracle worker in a small community. Nuns will get upset, and if word gets out the convent will be besieged by sightseers and journalists: so she decides Valentine cannot return until the laws of God and Nature are restored and the apple rots. Somehow I expected a religious institution would welcome miracles as proof of the Divine, but apparently not – and Sarah Dunant’s abbess in Sacred Hearts copes with similar problems by isolating a nun who experiences mystical visions, so perhaps the cover-up is common reaction!
Aunt Irene, of course, knows nothing of this and takes little interest in religion, attending church to be cheered up and because although she is indolent (she likes an easy life) she is also warm-hearted and desperately wants to be good. Her home is packed with old china, chintz and lace and she carefully cultivates a foreign air, because her Russian ancestors forsook orthodoxy for Roman Catholicism, were forced to flee, got the taste for travel and kept moving further and further away, across 27 lands and 30 countries, until they came to the 27th kingdom – Chelsea.
Aunt Irene shares her home with her nephew Kyril, and she sees herself purely in terms of their relationship. Her role as his aunt defines who she is, and she thinks him a wonderful being. He, needless to say, is what my mother would call ‘a bad lot’.  He is attractive to ‘most women and some men’, which has ‘proved bad for his character’, and he’s an unpleasant, self-indulgent pleasure seeker, with no conscience whatsoever.
The household also includes little Mr Sirocco the lodger whose tale has a tragic ending. In addition there’s a taxman pursuing Aunt Irene; a drunken major ; his ultra-genteel wife, who has fallen on hard times and now cleans for Aunt Irene, and salt-of –the-earth Londoner Mrs O’Connor, the head of a criminal family.
When Valentine arrives she surprises them all, for she hails from the West Indies and is a ‘tropical angel’ trailing light and colour, silent but happy, accepting her lot, secure in her knowledge that God exists. And it is her arrival which precipitates the action and changes lives.Nominated for the Booker Prize in 1982, The 27th Kingdom may not be regarded as Alice Thomas Ellis’ greatest work, but she draws her characters with perception and the novel is people driven. The plot, such as is it is, could be described as a series of episodic vignettes, but that is part of its charm.

Verdict: I love Alice Thomas Ellis. I’ve read most of her novels, returned to this one several times and still enjoy it – so much so that I’m considering buying a replacement for my battered edition (and keeping it away from the bath). 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Hackney: Fact or Fiction?

Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire,  A Confidential Report,  by Iain Sinclair
One can’t like everything one reads, and this book is proof of that. I picked it up in the library because my father came from Hackney and because of the title, which actually refers to the old music hall, but had resonance of a more ancient past: Petra, rose red city, half as old as time.
I even read the blurbs (something I rarely do). The Times claims the author is ‘brilliant’; the Irish Times says he is a ‘true alchemist of the word’; the Daily Telegraph pays tribute to his ‘thrilling prose’. However, alarm bells should have rung, triggered by comparison to JG Ballard (who I have never got to grips with) and ‘noir and pulp-fiction’ imagery (not genres I enjoy).
Sinclair is a writer and film maker, who has lived in Hackney for 40 years and, seemingly, has walked every inch of it. His book is kind of love affair with the place and its people. It combines myth, history, politics, literature, geography and popular culture and is part autobiography and part travelogue, a very individual view of a town on the cusp of change, in which he speaks out against the loss of landscape eaten up by the creation of the 2012 Olympic site – so it’s actually quite topical at the moment, and his views on the topic got him banned from pubkic llib raries in the borough. Alongside his encyclopedia of information he mentions famous visitors, like Astrid Proll (the Baader-Meinhof urban guerrilla on the run from justice, the Kray Brothers,  Jayne Mansfield (who visited a budgerigar fanciers convention),  Joseph Conrad, Orson Welles and Tony Blair.
 In theory it ticks all the right boxes, and I ought to like it, but I don’t, and I am not quite sure why. All I can say is that overall I liked the idea of the book more than I liked the book itself.
Sinclair himself describes his work as pyschogeography, once explaining in a Guardian interview that for him it is a way of psychoanalysing the psychosis of the place in which he lives. I’m not sure I fully understand that (the word psychobabble springs to mind) but he certainly doesn’t portray Hackney as a pleasant place. What he gives us is a cityscape like a great sprawling Hogarth painting showing the underbelly of the area (I’ve never been keen on Hogarth either). And therein, perhaps, is my problem. For although Sinclair’s book is packed with details and observations about Hackney’s history, buildings and people, there seems to be an over-emphasis on the low-life, criminals, drug addicts and weirdos.  Many of the residents he speaks of – including artists, poets, novelists, film makers, doctors and nurses - seem to be deeply flawed human beings. And he focuses on dirt, decay and the grotesque, which makes for a bleak read.
Surprisingly, it’s hard to know how much of the book is accurate. Sinclair himself calls it ‘documentary fiction’, and says it is true where it needs to be, which made me question his veracity, especially when I discovered that alongside the genuine inhabitants and family members who people this book is Kaporal, a literary private detective who, apparently,  is a character from Sinclair’s novels.
But some of the more unlikely people and events are true, including the tale of the ‘Mole Man’ whose network of tunnels excavated beneath his home were only discovered when they compromised the stability of neighbouring homes. This sounds like an urban myth, but is mentioned in Peter Ackroyd’s London Under (which I will write about some other time). Besides, a former colleague of mine once covered a court case brought by the local council against a resident who dug out a vast cellar beneath his home, so these things do happen.
It wasn’t just the content I failed to engage with: I also found it difficult to appreciate Sinclair’s style. For me Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire is the written equivalent of someone who speaks in a monotone, lacking variation in pace and colour. Sinclair also has an annoying habit of writing in clauses rather than sentences. I’m not saying this is wrong – it’s a device many of us use to add occasional emphasis or highlight a point. However, there were so many clauses strung together that I found it difficult to follow what was being said, and ended up desperately scanning the pages in search of a main verb, much as I used to during Latin lessons when my efforts to translate a passage into English hit a brick wall and I needed a vital clue to make sense of the whole thing.
Verdict: Sinclair may a highly acclaimed and well respected author, but I didn’t enjoy this book, wouldn’t read it again – and have no desire to read anything else he has written.

Monday, 4 July 2011

Children of the Revolution

Well, as usual I seem to have left it a while before blogging, but I have sat down and spoken sternly to myself. It is no good, I said, sitting around feeling sorry for yourself. You may not have a job, but you enjoy writing - so get on with it: write something! So that is what I am doing. And, as  today is the Fourth of July, American Independence Day (just!), I have taken that as my inspiration. I admit, I've stolen the idea from Vulpes Libris (one of my favourite bookish sites, you can find them at ( They have taken Independence Day as their theme for the week, staring with a review of 1861:The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart. It may seem an odd link, but the battle for freedom for slaves was very much about liberty and equality and the idealogy laid down in the Declaration of Independence, adopted on that first day of celebrations back in 1776.

Now my view of the Civil War is largely shaped by Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind (there's obviously a huge gap in my education here), so I'm sticking with the Revolution and I've picked a childhood favourite: Johnny Tremain, by Esther Forbes (1891-1967). Set in Boston on the eve of the American Revolution, it follows the story of Johnny Tremain, an apprentice silversmith who is forced to find alternative employment after injuring his hand and fetches up in the office of a newspaper supporting the rebel cause. There he learns about life, love and politics, and realises that men must stand up - and even die - for what they believe is right.

Key events, like the Boston Tea Party of 1773 and the first battles at Lexington and Concord feature in the book, alongside the everyday details of people's lives, while men like Paul Revere, John Hancock and Sam Adam - the movers and shakers who rewrote history - rub shoulders with apprentices, traders, merchants, servants, socialites and English socialists.

It may be a childen's book, but the author really knew her stuff, and the story is really well-written, with a meticulous attention to historical detail which gives an incredible sense of time and place. And she's equally good at portraying the emotional interplay between characters, using a light but sure touch to explore friendships, jealousies, hopes and fears.

Johnny Tremain, Forbes' only book for young people, was written in 1943 and won a Newbery Medal the following year. My copy, acquired in childhood, dates to 1965 and cost just four shillings and sixpence, in old money.