‘We are treading upon our ancestors’ (Peter Ackroyd, London Under)
‘At low tide, the Fleet outfall can be seen by standing in front of the empty bridge piers, and looking down’ (Tom Bolton, London’s Lost Rivers: A walker’s guide, pg. 113)
London is the place to go for long walks and drink beer.
It is a city to go underground and read.
Beer and books, books and beer.
Beer and books.
Words and tunnels.
Glass tower blocks and dark dirty corners.
London is a city of turmoil and change.
It is topographically, topologically, geomorphologically, hydrologically dynamic.
Yet it never changes.
In London, I walk. I always feel as if the surface of the ground is wafer thin, a membrane. I sense – I fear, I hope – that it would be the easiest thing in the world to let myself fall through, tearing myself and my temporality apart, lose myself in the quick sand of time and the seductiveness of the past. The ancient past.
I imagine as I drip through the pavement pores, feet first
that a Bronze Age archer grabs my ankle and pulls me down
that a Roman citizen tugs on my ragged trousers and cheap shoes
that hunter-gatherers, distracted from the hunt, come to gather me up
The weight of time, the deep time of London, is a force I can barely withstand and whenever I am in London it comes for me, it hunts and gathers me, it farms me, it smelts me and it colonizes me.
Because London is a city on the edge, a lawless and fluid border zone between past and present.
London is the gaping maw of prehistory, daring us to forget but not allowing us to, polluting and intoxicating with its weird hot breath.
The pavements beneath my feet are almost translucent. Walking in London is to walk on a gossamer-thin reality, the certainty and hardness of the present diminished. As I walk, I feel my feet begin to sink into the concrete and tarmac, and my walking becomes laboured. I look behind me and see a line of footprints – my footprints. Footprints that I have left behind and that I cannot erase. Nor can I escape. They will be able to follow me, the dead, although I have the consolation that I have left my mark in this place. ‘We are treading upon our ancestors’.
What more can be said about London?
What more can be written about London?
How deep can we go? How deep should we go?
How about as deep as we can and as far as we can.
Deeper than anything a guidebook can tell you.
I write these words as I sit in a café. I look up from the page. Around me are signs. A road sign points to LUDGATE CIRCUS. An office block is called FLEET HOUSE. A pub is called THE ALBION. A side street called BRIDEWELL LANE, named for a Holy Well.
THIS IS PREHISTORY.
How is it possible to write the histories of London and Londoners? History is only part of the story, and a very small part at that. History was brought to London by the Romans, whose ancient city walls were located near where I sat and wrote. I am acutely conscious that I am situated outside the walls of LONDINIUM. I am still in prehistory. I am one of the barbarians, the blue-bodied woad-wearers, I am indigenous, I am a native. There are people everywhere even although it is barely 8am and the sun is barely up.
Iron Age commuters.
Iron Age dispatch riders.
Iron Age cars and buses and taxis and lorries.
Yet – are we not all Homo Sapiens Sapiens? That is all I can see around me in the shadows.
Nearby too, the Roman temple atop Ludgate Hill, now St Paul’s Cathedral, must have been a pagan, pre-Roman, pre-Christian place. Before that it was a mound by a river. It has been coveted, transformed, appropriated, converted and contested. Only last night I ate a pizza and drank wine there. This heathen hill was Romanised by the Romans and Christianised by the Christians and commodified by the capitalists – all in the name of capital in the capital.
And before that, where I sit now, supping caffeine, was under water, in the Thames.
So now I sit, tired, but elated and focused.
The Fleet beneath my feet.