Blakean Spirit

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I wander thro’ each charter’d street,

Near where the charter’d Thames does flow. 

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

William Blake London

Last week I paid a visit to London to go and see the Blake exhibition at Tate Britain. Every visit to London – not so frequent these days – seems to reveal yet more new building projects, more cranes on the skyline, more high blue fences. Multinational finance keen to invest in real estate seems intent on filling in any remaining gaps, such as they are, with new buildings – a new transistor soldered onto the crowded circuit board that is hi-rise central London. Each new piece of architectural bling serves as a totem to (someone else’s) capital. Meanwhile, the people on the street, who hurry between meetings, or stand hunched smoking and phone-swiping outside revolving glass doors, appear indifferent to the edifices that rise above them as if they were little more than fill-in detail on an architect’s plan.

The affect can be alienating. I cannot relate to any of this: my own navigation of the city depends on outdated mental maps and more familiar topography. Peering through the few remaining gaps in the crowded cityscape I am at least able to identify some landmarks by their distinctive form or superior height – the London Stadium fronted by Anish Kapoor’s helter-skelter Orbit sculpture, the Shard, the Gherkin, the pyramid-topped One Canada Square. But even these relatively familiar sights are less old friends than over-enthusiastic schoolboys with their hands up – ‘Me, Sir! Me, Sir!’

I have to face it: this is not my city. But whose is it? Who does it speak to?

Two hundred or so years ago, London spoke to William Blake but the city he lived in has now largely vanished. All that remains is location and shabbily dressed ghosts. In 1820 – exactly two hundred years ago – Blake moved with his wife Catherine to the last place they would live together, a house at Fountain Court off the Strand. It was here, approaching the end of his life, where he experienced his most profound visions, and where he was judged – the jury will always be out – to be either genius or madman. While living here he must have come close to bumping into fellow traveller (and ‘madman’) John Clare, who on one of his rare visits to the capital lodged nearby, although no such meeting has been recorded. The pair had much in common – Blake, an engraver, artist, poet; Clare, a labourer, fence-builder, poet. Both visionaries of sorts, both opposed to militarism and empire, both horrified by the desecration they saw coming in the guise of the Industrial Revolution.

Coming out of the exhibition, almost cross-eyed from hours of peering at intricate artwork and deciphering Lilliputian script in low light, my friend Nigel Roberts remarked that it was actually a good thing that nothing remained of any of Blake’s London homes – his legacy was one of pure spirit. All that marked his various residences was its former address (if the street still existed) and an optional blue plaque. Even the monument at Bunhill Fields (a place I had visited defiantly on the day they buried Margaret Thatcher, an anti-Blake figure if ever there was one) was merely a memorial stone not a grave marker. The common grave he was actually buried in went unmarked until August 2018, when a ledger stone was finally put in place with the legend: Here lies William Blake 1757—1827 Poet Artist Prophet.

What did remain, in addition to an enormous body of work and a roll-call of sacred locations, was Blake’s indelible imprint on the city. Like a sleeping giant, any future London, however changed or corrupted its topography, would invariably retain a Blakean spirit, a spirit that could be evoked on demand. Blake’s legacy does not depend on bricks and mortar. Here was a man who could see a world in a grain of sand, and angels in a tree at Peckham Rye.

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Bunhill Fields

IMG_0156Three weeks ago I happened to be in London. As things turned out, on that very same day  the city was somewhat preoccupied with a very high-profile event at London’s most iconic church. Given the circumstances, I felt the need to escape the gravity of St Pauls and mark my all-too-rare visit in a more personal way. So on the morning of April 17 I headed to Bunhill Fields in the Borough of Islington. Here, at a quiet Nonconformist graveyard tucked away from the thrum of city traffic, are buried some of England’s less showy heroes.

IMG_0145Here you’ll find John Bunyan, radical preacher of Pilgrim’s Progress fame, whose stone form lies prone atop a hefty tomb. Nearby stands an obelisk that commemorates Daniel Defoe, a man who in addition to writing Robinson Crusoe was also a great traveller and author of an opinionated account of the  nation in the early years of the 18th century. Next to the Defoe obelisk, and far more humble, is a plain stone that marks the life of another great Londoner– William Blake. So unpretentious is this tomb marker that it does not even stand on the exact spot where Blake are buried – the actual grave is unmarked and the poet’s bones lie elsewhere nearby, although the exact spot is uncertain.

It was a cold grey day, and workmen were working industriously clearing the ground in another part of the graveyard. Otherwise, there were no other visitors to Blake’s – or anyone else’s – grave on that particular morning. Meanwhile, just a mile or so to the south, the traffic had been stopped and bells silenced – no ding-donging permitted on this day. Assorted armed forces lined the street in a gung-ho revival of Falklands fever as a sorry procession of politicians, prison novelists, low-rent celebrities, arms dealers, blubbing chancellors and sundry Spitting Image characters entered the cathedral to take their seats beneath the lofty Wren dome.

As history was rewritten for the umpteenth time in a matter of days, Blake’s bones lay sleeping unperturbed in Bunhill Fields – definitely not for turning. A bone fide Londoner who wrote of higher places, William Blake was a man whose words could reach out to everyman – to Londoners of every stripe certainly, but also to those in Scotland, County Durham, Liverpool…South Wales…South Yorkshire…

Do what you will, this world’s a fiction and is made up of contradiction

Walking the Edge

The latest issue of Geographical magazine has a feature by Alastair Humphreys on walking around London following a route as close to the M25 orbital as possible. The focus here – other than the testing of outdoor clothing and equipment – seems to be that of ‘micro-adventures’ in one’s local area: a worthy notion in this information-bloated age where, if truth be told, there are few exotic places left to explore. The adventurers of yore usually had an ulterior motive anyway – empire carving, resource procurement, trade – and so latter-day explorers, unsponsored by king and country (and usually publishers) and wishing to find something new, have to look instead at the finer detail, examine the way countries have changed, focus on the small print of ‘place’.

The writer Iain Sinclair has already written about the M25 at length in his book London Orbital where, instead of sleeping in a bivvy bag in green belt fields (and tweeting about it) as Humphreys has done, the author completed the circuit by way of day-long excursions from his Hackney home in the company of a handful of friends. Sinclair’s clockwise plod reveals a twilight zone where megalopolis begins to morph into leafy shires. Most revealingly, he identifies a ring of vanished mental hospitals and institutions that trace the course of the future motorway with uncanny accuracy. Like plague pits located beyond medieval city walls, it appears as if it was decided in Victorian times that illness – especially the mental kind – had to be kept at arm’s length and well beyond the city’s grasp lest it infect the metropolitan populace. The distance necessary for this physical and spiritual separation seems to coincide almost exactly with that of London’s orbital racetrack.

Turning to a more rural setting, here in East Anglia both Norfolk and Suffolk may be circumambulated (more or less – let us not quibble about precise boundaries) by following a series of long-distance footpaths. In Norfolk, begin with the Angles Way in Great Yarmouth, follow it along the Waveney Valley almost as far as Thetford in Breckland and then take the  Iceni Way along the River Great Ouse and across the Fens north to Hunstanton where the Norfolk Coast Path can be picked up to continue east. At Cromer, the meandering Weaver’s Way can then be followed through the Broads to arrive back at Yarmouth. In Suffolk, the Suffolk Coast Path can be walked from Lowestoft to Felixstowe before continuing around the Suffolk estuaries by means of the Stour and Orwell Walk to Cattawade. Here, the county boundary may be traced west to by means of the Stour Valley Path, straying occasionally into Essex and Cambridgeshire, as far as Sudbury before continuing to Bury St Edmunds along the St Edmund Way and Icknield Way path to Breckland  from where the Angle’s Way completes the circuit back to the Suffolk Coast.

Last year I had a notion that it might be interesting to split the Norfolk boundary circuit into four seasonal portions, four lengths of the county rectangle that would be walked around each of the year’s cardinal points: the Angle’s Way in mid winter; the Iceni Way in spring and so on, completing the circuit to arrive back at Great Yarmouth around the autumnal equinox. Starting out with good intentions, I walked the length of the Angles Way in late December 2009 and early January 2010. Plans for setting out on the next section, the Iceni Way, were abandoned however – or, rather, put on hold – when a commission to write a guide for Cicerone Press on the three long-distance walks within the Suffolk Coast & Heaths AONB turned my attention to trails a little further southeast. My forthcoming guide Suffolk Coast and Heaths Walks: Three Long-distance Routes in the AONB will be published in November this year.