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Tracey Thorn: my London is blue plaques, plague pits and gin not 4x4s and basement gyms

London is both in my blood and not. I am of the place, and not of it, and I feel or imagine sentimental connections at every twist and turn.

A workman spends his lunch hour looking at paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery, 1933. Photo: Getty
A workman spends his lunch hour looking at paintings in the Whitechapel Gallery, 1933. Photo: Getty

I love London – and yet in truth, as time goes by, it becomes harder and harder for me to justify my love. Its current image in the media couldn’t be worse, and my friends in the north are fond of reminding me that it is simply the playground of Boris Johnson and the Candy brothers: a vast, ugly housing bubble populated only by the mega-rich, who don’t even populate it, as they live elsewhere. There is much truth in this. As you walk the streets nowadays you can virtually hear house prices going up and up, like a ticking taxi meter, all around you, but that is no source of delight to those of us who love the city.

My ancestors have been here since the 1850s. My maternal great-great-great-grandfather Job Bush moved from the village of Carleton Rode in Norfolk to St Pancras, bringing something of the country with him and working as a gardener. On Dad’s side, my great-great-grandfather William Julius Thorn was in Chelsea in the 1870s, working as a commercial clerk. In the 1950s, my parents moved out to the suburbs, fleeing the bomb sites and the cramped conditions they’d grown up with, but I moved back as soon as I could in the 1980s. And so London is both in my blood and not. I am of the place, and not of it, and I feel or imagine sentimental connections at every twist and turn. I can point out to you churches where ancestors of mine were wed, streets where they were born.

Hampstead, where I live, is no longer the cosy home of shabby intelligentsia; like anywhere else that’s pretty, its value has been entirely monetised and it is now just cash that lives here. But still, an area can’t shake off its past that easily, and when I walk up and down its hills I try not to notice the 4x4s or the hoardings where another basement gym is being constructed, but instead focus on the blue plaques to Katherine Mansfield and George Orwell, and the statue of Freud, looking severe and pensive at the foot of Fitzjohn’s Avenue. “Is he cross?” my youngest asked when he was five or so. “No, he’s thinking,” I replied.

It was love of London that sent me off on a walking tour of Aldgate last weekend, organised by a company called Footprints of London. The tour guide is Ade Clarke, who I was in a band with aged 17. He loves London as much as I do, which confirms my belief that growing up just outside it predisposes you to overlook its faults and dwell on its beauty and allure.

So if you love the place, you will find beauty in, for instance, contemplation of the spot where a plague pit was dug behind the church of St Botolph without Aldgate. The small group of us on the tour stood there on a Saturday afternoon, as the traffic roared by, lost in the past, surrounded by ghosts, suffused with the feeling that everyone who has ever lived in this city is somehow still here.

That feeling remained, grew stronger even, as we moved on to Wilton’s Music Hall, dating from the 1850s (did any of my ancestors go there, I wondered) and Cable Street, where we swelled with undeserved pride, basking in the memory of the local people who stopped fascists in their tracks. Then, in Altab Ali Park, named after a young Bangladeshi clothing worker who was murdered in 1978 on his way home from work, our spirits fell a little; maybe the fascists weren’t stopped after all?

Outside the Whitechapel Gallery, which for the past 100 years has housed exhibitions from Picasso to Pollock, Ade quoted John Ruskin to us – “Life without industry is guilt, and industry without art is brutality.” On that stirring note, with all the stories of the afternoon ringing in our ears, we retired to the Halal Restaurant, established in 1939 and the oldest Indian eatery in east London, and finally to the Oliver Conquest, a pub that was once the bar for the original Garrick Theatre, and which now offers more than 160 varieties of gin.

We sampled too many of them, of course, and paid the price next day. The Bathtub Gin did me in, and the night ended in slightly more Hogarthian style than we might have intended – but really, what could be more London? God love and preserve the place.

Tags:London