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

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.

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.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Theresa May's "clean Brexit" is hard Brexit with better PR

The Prime Minister's objectives point to the hardest of exits from the European Union. 

Theresa May will outline her approach to Britain’s Brexit deal in a much-hyped speech later today, with a 12-point plan for Brexit.

The headlines: her vow that Britain will not be “half in, half out” and border control will come before our membership of the single market.

And the PM will unveil a new flavour of Brexit: not hard, not soft, but “clean” aka hard but with better PR.

“Britain's clean break from EU” is the i’s splash, “My 12-point plan for Brexit” is the Telegraph’s, “We Will Get Clean Break From EU” cheers the Express, “Theresa’s New Free Britain” roars the Mail, “May: We’ll Go It Alone With CLEAN Brexit” is the Metro’s take. The Guardian goes for the somewhat more subdued “May rules out UK staying in single market” as their splash while the Sun opts for “Great Brexpectations”.

You might, at this point, be grappling with a sense of déjà vu. May’s new approach to the Brexit talks is pretty much what you’d expect from what she’s said since getting the keys to Downing Street, as I wrote back in October. Neither of her stated red lines, on border control or freeing British law from the European Court of Justice, can be met without taking Britain out of the single market aka a hard Brexit in old money.

What is new is the language on the customs union, the only area where May has actually been sparing on detail. The speech will make it clear that after Brexit, Britain will want to strike its own trade deals, which means that either an unlikely exemption will be carved out, or, more likely, that the United Kingdom will be out of the European Union, the single market and the customs union.

(As an aside, another good steer about the customs union can be found in today’s row between Boris Johnson and the other foreign ministers of the EU27. He is under fire for vetoing an EU statement in support of a two-state solution, reputedly to curry favour with Donald Trump. It would be strange if Downing Street was shredding decades of British policy on the Middle East to appease the President-Elect if we weren’t going to leave the customs union in order at the end of it.)

But what really matters isn’t what May says today but what happens around Europe over the next few months. Donald Trump’s attacks on the EU and Nato yesterday will increase the incentive on the part of the EU27 to put securing the political project front-and-centre in the Brexit talks, making a good deal for Britain significantly less likely.

Add that to the unforced errors on the part of the British government, like Amber Rudd’s wheeze to compile lists of foreign workers, and the diplomatic situation is not what you would wish to secure the best Brexit deal, to put it mildly.

Clean Brexit? Nah. It’s going to get messy. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.