This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
In the spring we felt intimations of what was to come. Talk of events abroad, of coastal towns besieged, of the death toll climbing as they each in turn succumbed to the sickness, filled the gathering spaces of our city. In markets, ale houses and churchyards, we whispered about what might be headed our way. Idle and speculative though much of it was, it became a recurrent and ominous theme of every conversation. It might be easy to say that now though; in truth nobody foresaw what was to come. Not really.
It came on slow. We had seen worse, we thought. The tales of pox and of other contagions were written into the folktales retold by our grandfathers. The myths and apocrypha handed down from our forebears. To be heeded. To be guarded against. In June, we thought we saw our presumptions confirmed. In July, we noted the rise in the dead-count, but noted it knowingly. By August, we looked at one another askance. Each aware of the uncertainty in the other’s eyes, as well as in his own, and before we had taken stock that uncertainty had been replaced by fear.
We looked askance at the people we had always known; doubt and suspicion clouding our vision. As the count continued steadily to rise, we each retreated further into ourselves. We drew ourselves away from the world, and from each other. More than anything we longed for sleep – sleep that we could wake from – with clear heads and unclouded vision.
But sleep would not come, and the long, drawn-out days passed ever more slowly into long, drawn-out nights. Time seeped, oozing between floorboards and escaping round door frames and drawing with it our energy and our activity. It lingered, a cloying residue layered over the surfaces and binding the dust.
There was no wind. The air had not changed in weeks. Activity slowed to sticky torpor by the humid stillness. Languid, lazy thoughts half-formed, barely-formulated, abandoned, mid-stream, allowed to seep out into the streets, carried with them their own memory.
On Cheapside, the last of the butchers and grocers had closed and left by the end of August. Even those willing to stay had no customers and so saw no merit in it. The same story was repeated across town: cart ruts ran empty through near-silent streets, and the whisperings of the townspeople disappeared round corners and behind shutters. People rested. Sweated. Waited. Prayed. We wondered, each, had we done enough to be spared? We wondered what this meant. The fevered waited also, their redded, restless eyes and blackened swellings; their judgement already passed. We prayed for them, and hoped it would do us some good.
A fever born in the delirium of heat – the world and our setting obscured behind a veil, the walls and the roads and open spaces visible as softened forms beneath a blanket – meanings forgotten or discarded, sense obscured by a litany of dust.
The city itself seemed alive with haze, with shimmer, with mirage, with hallucination, with memory and desire. Dreams untold and stories unwritten. Objects and people vanishing into the heat. The city fragmented and divided, stilled into isolation.
In the working quarter back from the docks in Wapping the brothels bolted their doors too, but from the surrounding alleyways the throaty coos and spluttering groans spoke of a desperation deeper than the malaise that ate away at all of us. We might have been glad of this insistent confirmation of life still lived, of business still transacted – but in truth the plague was in us all – it was in our spirits, and became the lens through which everything else was refracted, and so all that those sounds confirmed was the presence of a still- more-abject, desperate misery.
The summer incubated death. We in its thrall. It captured us and held us fast. Caught between the horror that we all witnessed, brought to bear on our neighbours and family, and the fear and suspicion that gestated inside our heads.
Looking out onto deserted streets, day after day and week after week, changed something in all of us. We looked on the world differently – and concluded otherwise than we had. We watched the world move in unnatural rapture. Shuffling figures – not of dreams and nor of the hereafter, but of the same fabric as you and I and the world – hunched and gaunt, withdrawn and suspicious, making impercepticle passage across the haemorraging landscape. They – their presence – I know now – sustained us, in some way. Looking upon their anguish and seeing our own reflected reminded us not only of our own frailty but of our reciprocated suffering – and of what we were – and of what we might be capable. In some way, their degradation nourished us. And we watched them dragging with them the threads by which the city might be restitched. But their eyes too were glazed and incurious – they wandered – hesitant, gaping, thoughtless gaits – onwards, forming no memories. But these figures, these shadows of men, they were not ill. Their passage, rendered inevitable by their particular circumstances, was pursued not with strength, nor with determination, but by a persistence born of a blunted imagination, and made courageous by that. For better or for worse, that was how we saw it.
“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!” The stillness broken by the familiar cry. The dreadful bells. A death-knell constantly tolled. The new silence of the city. In the rhythmic gloaming the sound rang long and far and pervaded the sleep and the waking dreams of our people. The sound marked nothing and said nothing and was not supposed to. 7,000 in a week they said. Rung for all time, the bells would not toll the count. The new pit in Clerkenwell had filled in the space of a fortnight in September. 10,000 there, they said. A new one dug on Goswell Road. The brimstone men circled the city beginning and ending at the pits, dispensing fumes and smoke and a low glow in the streets. They walked shifts, night through day, and when the fog was down in the early morning you could judge their approach like the arrival of youthful demons preying on the empty streets. The shock of movement. Our kinsmen eyed with suspicion. The fire carts. The dead-carts – the thin old man with his thinner daughter, cutting endless, silent passage through the deserted streets. Cosseted behind shutters, we waited and sweated and remembered times when our neighbours were our friends, their gazes unmarked by suspicion, their eyes undulled by boredom and by loss. Each of us stilled alone, imprisoned ourselves against an outer terror – erected barricades at our doors and in our minds, and strew them with trinkets and offerings. We relearned or redreamed the old ways – remembered the remedies and rituals of our forebears, and practised them without skill, in hope more than expectation.
In October though, the air changed. The count fell steadily as the month progressed, and we remembered something of the way of these things. Remembered the stories our grandparents told us. With the coming cool, we might be spared. As the air in the city moistened and cooled, we began again to tread the streets. To visit. To trade. At St. Paul’s, where the sick had been laid up for months, a morning service. The sickly had no choice, but the healthy came too.
Something turned, then. We remembered our charity – our humanity. People talked. We talked with strangers and we talked with friends. We dared to look skyward. We prayed thanks that we had been saved.
The winter invigorated the city. Recast it in its own image. But the simulation was short-lived.
As the days lengthened in the spring, fears returned and people returned to the habits learned the previous summer. The hot months passed in a dream. Lives contrived by unskilled hands. Everything begun anew. People waited. The city unresolved. The horrors of the previous summer stalked the memory of the city and demanded recompense. This was of our making, and something had to give.
* * *
The fire raged for four days and four nights and by the end of it the City of London was cinders. Much was unrecognisable, but in the embers the old city revealed and reasserted itself. The structure of the guildhall was preserved in charred embers, its charcoal frame glinting in the moonlight and creaking in the wind, a ghost-presence, a symbol of the city razed flat. On the streets south of St. Paul’s, where the alleyways led down to the river, the dust lay entombed in lead. Residents spoke of the rivers that flowed from the husk of the great Cathedral – first a living orange, later a dead grey. It was there, they said. They paced back and forth to demonstrate. The fire wrought a terrible vengeance on London: the city of sin had met its judgement, they said. The faces of the pious spelt out the talk of the town: R-E-T-R-I-B-U-T-I-O-N. London had been held to account, they said. First in pestilence. Now in flames. The corrupt heart of the city burnt out.
We watched it closely. Marvelled at its terrible progress. Drank ale on the bank of the river in Southwark and sat in mutual silences, unsure of ourselves and our fates. We watched it as goers at the theatre. A spectacle of unexpected proportion. But this was not a phlegmatic time. People spoke of the end of days. Of the ledger of an old-testament God. We talked in undertones. Said little. Many prayed. Many wept. There was an illness of spirit, pervasive in the air those days. A sickness still more widespread than the one we had known previously.
Those times taught us a hundred lessons; whether we learned anything is moot. Too readily we would come to forget. Because as the old courses were re-established, as our former lives were regained, we spoke of new times and new ways, but slipped steadily back into the old patterns. There was opportunity then, to reconvene, to confess, to make ourselves more whole. To stand up for what we could have been. But nothing new was made of ourselves. As much as we might have wanted, we were, it is now apparent, unable to recast ourselves. To re-envisage what it was, what it meant, to live and die here.
Because we knew no different, and because we succumbed to a poverty of imagination – a poverty of spirit – that might as well be our epitaph.
* * *
Such was the city of our youth. The one we pretended to remember, and to guard against. My grandfather told the stories of the city in his own voice – made them his own confessions. For me, the voice of my grandfather will always be the voice of the city. Every story is spoken in his tones; every person a character animated by his voice.
He used to take me to Sydenham hill – as often as I can remember. We would sit and look out over the strange space below. I would often question him why we went there. What he liked about it. His answers were always oblique. Here, everything can be laid out – he would say – and we can look at it in our own time. Occasionally he would tell me the story of the place. I go there still, to breathe, and to reimagine what I know.
* * *
The palace looms. Its great emptiness stalked by ragged crows. Its crumbled balustrades blackened, its stone writ with the memory of flame. My grandfather had stood on a hill in Bletchley, sixty miles to the north, and watched the great blaze. Flames taller than any building in the city – he had said – Like a whole new cathedral.
He spoke of his visit to the Exhibition, in 1851. Told of the enormity of the structure, the enormity of the crowds, and of the dizzying, head-spinning wonders of the bazaar. The halls were of glass: the space separated into undivided spaces: vitrines hermetising the world’s treasures, displaced and dispossessed. A phantasmagoria, he said. But words were inadequate. This was nothing but a setting. A grandiloquent stage set, built to exercise the bluster and conceit of empire.
He’d tell me also about how it sat in its new landscape, following the move. Its peculiarity. Its spookiness. It had never seemed quite right, he said, it was – uncanny, he said. Something off-kilter.
Whenever we walked the site I felt myself sifting the embers of the fire. There is something unfinished there – an unresolved loss – a protracted, ongoing arbitration. The space is entirely dominated by absence – by the looming, overbearing sense of what is not there. Sometimes he would burst into laughter and throw his hands up in resignation – what the hell are you meant to do with this place? – he would ask. I understand him now. Sydenham hill offers no answers to the questions it poses.
Because the Palace stands still – phantom testimony to the grand arrogance of a dead time – the ultimate piece of Victoriana. In this it is not alone. The great gathering-spaces of the world understand that sentiment, existing as awkward reminders of discredited or abandoned world views: Tiananmen Square – The Place de la Concorde – Nuremberg. Repositories for collective memory, they remind us of what remains unresolved, and offer an opportunity to reimagine what might yet be.
We would usually arrive at Sydenham on the train and walk up to the Palace from the station. That’s how you’re supposed to do it, my grandfather insisted. We would make our way up the hill to a bench near the transmitter tower, from where we could look over the landscape. I do the same thing when I visit the place now, and look on the same view. The enormous plinths are joined by flights of steps which are flanked by pairs of concrete sphinxes that stare blankly out. My grandfather would pat them fondly as he passed; I think he felt sorry for them – guilty almost – for what they had come to mean to him.
On bright and sunny days, the Palace is a stark and two dimensional place. Light finds no corners there, and the view across the plinths is hard and impervious. My grandfather always liked it best when the weather was bad, when the rain fell as a sheet and veiled the view. Then, the rain becomes a mirror, half opaque, in which we recognise the stories that reside within us, and half transparent, through which we can watch a new world taking shape.
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine