“So how can you tell me you’re lonely,
And say for you that the sun don’t shine?
Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London,
Show you something to make you change your mind.”
Some evenings, as the famous song goes, I too walk the well-trodden streets of London. My journey starts in a forboding dark tower, black steel framing blacker glass, basalt watchtowers climbing skyward, bats circling above. It is a gatehouse, flames tickling the reflected half-light, guarding a gaping chasm where the devil himself is trying to claw his way out. So far, the Central Line, several huge gas pipelines, and enough reinforced concrete to line Purgatory looks to be keeping him at bay, but I seem to manage an escape through the back door most days.
Having slipped away, like a Dickensian street urchin, from the clutches of my employer, I twist through the alleys and emerge on Holborn Viaduct, where I am abruptly thrown back to the kerb by a Hackney Carriage, diesel horse and outspoken reinsman pulling his well-to-do passenger past a mud-splattered delivery boy. I emerge, tired, hungry, in need of education and stern discipline, at Greyfriars Monastery, as orphaned children had done for 350 years, gifted a future by a Royal Charter from the boy king, Edward VI, in 1553.
The school at Greyfriars, Christ’s Hospital, moved out for cleaner air over a century ago. But once a year, the streets of London are closed down, and the children of the school form up in neat lines and march through the City, still wearing the yellow socks that have scared away the rats for nearly half a millenium. Accompanied by the beat of the bass drums and the shrill piccolos, faces proud and stony as the reverberating walls, they march to the City’s ancient town hall at Guildhall, where they receive a newly minted coin from the Lord Mayor of London.
My own march takes me under the imposing dome and giant’s handiwork of St Paul’s Cathedral, glancing up at the empty niches to catch a wink from the missing statues. If I look back, flipping disinterestedly past the pages of Fleet Street, leaving the Masons stuck in their ceremonies at Temple Church, higher even than the Royal Courts of Justice, just sometimes, the great dome is framed by a sunset so glorious that I wonder if Mr. Wren ever sat on top of his magnificent creation and decided to move to the countryside.
Turning my back to the sun, I find myself reciting a well known medieval nursery rhyme:
“Oranges and lemons” say the Bells of St. Clement’s,
“You owe me five farthings” say the Bells of St. Martin’s,
“When will you pay me?” say the Bells of Old Bailey,
“When I grow rich” say the Bells of Shoreditch,
“When will that be?” say the Bells of Stepney,
“I do not know” say the Great Bells of Bow.
The City of London is, little known, the heart of English church bellringing. On the march eastwards from the bells of St Martin’s in Trafalgar Square to the bells of Stepney, you can hear the mathematical art practiced in its highest form. Some of the country’s heaviest bells swing full circle in the south-western Tower of St Paul’s Cathedral, whilst the other churches en route – St Andrew’s Holborn, St Sepulchre’s Newgate; St Michael’s Cornhill, conceal their gift in their conspicuous urban hiding places. Half way down the ironically-named Roman street of Cheapside, the Bow Bells ring out, that welcomed Dick Whittington back to London in 1392, that once signalled the start and end of the working day in the City, that were destroyed by a bomb in World War II, and that have been celebrated by centuries of children who didn’t have to look up the nursery rhyme on Google.
At the bottom end of Cheapside, I arrive at the geometrical absurdity of Bank Junction, guarded by the impenetrable stone walls of Mansion House, the Royal Exchange, the Bank of England, seat of the Lord Mayor of London and the traditional and corporate power wielded by the livery companies and the City of London. The buildings, monolithic tributes to financial superiority, were built progressively through the 18th and 19th centuries, designed by architects who plied their trade around the British Empire. At the feet of the Duke of Wellington’s bronze horse, I can almost feel I am standing on the bathplug, imagining the slaves, cotton, sugar, men and women of Africa and Asia pouring down the radial streets into Bank Junction.
Onwards, under the great Gherkin, modern day monument to London’s global influence, I hear the muezzin’s melodious call to prayer. It takes me by surprise, an abrupt end to the world of commerce, faces of glass, steel and stone, and transports me overseas, to Pakistan or Qatar, where these serious, artful and devoted recitations are a familiar, everyday sound, waking you up in the morning and chiding you if you are still at work when the sun goes down. Next door to the mosque, is the ancient lettering and weathered yellow door of Whitechapel Bell Foundry, where the Christian call to prayer is born for residents of our small island.
Further on, through the cyclists yelling at pedestrians, pedestrians yelling at drivers, drivers yelling at cyclists, all self-righteous in their vehicular identity of the minute, I am tempted by the Blind Beggar pub, famously frequented by the Kray brothers, and outside which a beggar, so intoxicated as to be blind, rolls around on the floor. I find myself musing on criminality – wondering if the comparison is fair between the Kray brothers, with their violent history, political connections and “fucking untouchable” celebrity status, and the educated men in ivory towers up the road, whose crimes may be so distant as to be unknown even to themselves.
On the final stretch home, a chirpy “God Bless You”, much more commonplace in East Africa, is a slightly more effective pitch from the next pavement dweller, bunkered down amongst the saris and samosas, bangles and beards, pomegranates and pashminas of Whitechapel Road, cheap end of the Monopoly board. Turning left up to Bethnal Green, through the Victorian workhouses and space-age council estates, I stop under the railway arches to check on my car, waiting for a white Caribbean mechanic and his Kenyan employee to finish their heated negotiations with a moustachioed and mistrusting topi-topped Pakistani office worker.
I suspect the inexorable march eastward, through London’s history towards Mile End, Vladivostok, World’s End, contains much of what the fence-builders and neighbour-blamers of today will never understand: As fraught with frustrations and misunderstandings as cultural interactions can be – every time, I would take those who take the considerable leap of faith to learn and grow with people outside their own narrow mindset, over the culturally moribund, historically ignorant, and self-important foolery of those who think that money, power, home, security and happiness is best protected by isolationism and building walls.