The faint hum, the rail track whistle
Whatever I’m going through in life, London provides a familiar welcome home. It’s not necessarily cheery. I’m not talking about a warm cuddle or a reassuring back-rub. It feels more like I’m being greeted by a nonchalant wave. It’s an old flame raising their eyebrows as I walk past; a self-confident smile that says, “you’re back again…”
Clerkenwell, where I’m located, is dotted with empty warehouses and drinking troughs for cattle. It’s hard to tell apart the hum of air vents and home refrigerators from the dimmed sounds of the Sunday evening sky-scape.
There’s the occasional rattle of a train tracking its way into Farringdon, but besides, there’s few distractions. This is a Sunday night in August and a pandemic continues to plague these streets. Whisper it, though, because Londoners appear to have become desensitised to the thankless news. The city seems weary after a brutal summer and spring.
London’s not broken, but it is subdued
London is by no means broken: the Big Smoke has experienced miseries worse than this. Some of these woes took place here, in this civilised enclave, EC1: in Clerkenwell Bridewell, for instance, and the neighbouring New Prison. Punishments much worse than ‘lockdown’ were handed out at the Clerkenwell House of Detention, where prisoners either awaited trial or were sent for short sentences. Crueller punishments still were meted out at Coldbath Fields Prison, close by in what is today’s Mount Pleasant.
Coldbath Fields Prison became known as The Steel and was notorious for its strict regime of silence and its use of the penal treadmill. Effectively an ‘everlasting staircase’, prisoners walked on the treadmill in silence for six hours a day, and had no contact with adjacent prisoners. They saw only the wall positioned in front of them: all to “reform” prisoners and to prevent them from lying around idle. Ebenezer Scrooge described the treadmill as “useful” in Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.
Londoners have experienced worse than the Coronavirus. I haven’t mentioned the Great Plague of 1665 and the Great Fire that molested the city a year later, the Black Death, the Protestants and Catholics burnt at the stake in Tudor and Stuart Britain; let alone, the Blitz.
To misquote Churchill, in August 2020, we may be “at the end of the beginning”, and much like the retreating Allied Soldiers at Dunkerque, we can’t know whether we’ve hit our nadir, or whether worse is to come.
Before I arrived back, I knew many businesses had supported their employees to work from home, but it has only been walking the deadened streets, that I’ve seen how empty the Square Mile really is. How subdued the city seems, especially beneath the mousy grey skies.
And yet I love her
When I’m abroad, I resort to hyperbole about my home country and rage about the parochial politics and gamesmanship of the UK’s right-wing government. I kid myself that I know better, that I’ve transported myself to more reasonable locales. It’s all a load of bollocks.
As soon as I step foot in this city, I’m livened by its unique draw of ugliness and incongruous beauty. There’s such wild inconsistency, for example in the juxtaposition of Roman stone wall buttressed by the mid-20th century behemoth that is the Barbican; there’s beauty in the vista of St Paul’s Cathedral and the Shard peeping above the brickwork of Vine Street Bridge with the creaking Metropolitan line underneath. Cannabis fills the air, but look behind you, and there’s St John’s Gate with its historical associations with an ancient religious order with origins in 11th century Jerusalem.
Next to it, lies Turnmill Street, once a famed precinct for brothels and undesirables when it was Turnbull Street and the “most disreputable street” in Elizabethan London. Shakespeare mentions it in Henry IV, Part 2, when Falstaff ridicules Justice Shallow for his debauched feats in Turnbull Street. Many people in the darkened alleys and courts to the east of Turnbull Street ended up being hanged.
London doesn’t leave me indifferent. I experience the extremities of putrid smells, and canine hearing. I experience acute sensitivity to the city’s screeching police sirens and my nostrils flare on many a street corner, but not always because of sewage works or uncleaned drains. There’s Brick Lane and Whitechapel’s buttery curries and Dalston and Stoke Newington’s sweaty kebabs.
Last week, we walked from Shoreditch through the old Metropolitan Borough of Finsbury and I was reminded, quite independent of anything specific to this year’s lockdown, London can be eerily quiet. For a city populated by close to ten million people, it has remarkable stretches of land that don’t shout, but whisper, especially after dark.