According to Ackroyd

04Oct12

From the top of the 36 bus that had brought me from Camberwell to Hyde Park Corner, I could smell the noxious smoke – then see the flames.

The lone Mercedes abandoned by the wall of the palace’s northern perimeter was burning well, melting engine parts popping and frothing. Samsung at the ready, a taxi driver steered past one-handed, snapping photos to show the wife later. To this Londoner, it was just another ordinary moment in the life of their capital. And Dutch tourists uploaded the drama to their Facebook pages thinking this an interesting holiday incident worth reporting too. A cyclist steered around the cordon and pedaled on unimpressed towards Victoria, this road again reclaimed as it was during the summer triathlons.

In context with the last two thousand years, nothing has really changed in this city of antiquity. The previous night I had closed Peter Ackroyd’s London, The Biography for the last time. His epic reportage of life-stores and myths through the millennia was exhaustive and leaves the Londoner with a fatter appetite for their capital’s heroic sagas.

When we walk over a worn footpath, our own boots add to the prints left by our ancestors, but when we criss-cross the streets and narrow passages, we leave no hard trace on this ancient city’s modern pavements apart from how we add to the same day-to-day theatre and the occasional emergencies that our forebears way back took stopped to gawp at. For the regular watchers of executions then, we stop today to read the floral memorial poetry to an unfortunate pedestrian.

Everyday street spectacles: Tragic fires or the rioting mob, there are countless, similarly documented events in this century that bring nearer the sum total of an organic metropolis. Throughout the ages London has itself repeated – scenarios forever rewound. In the aftermath of the Blitz, bomb sites reverted to nature with species not seen since genteel Tudor times.

When the black smoke from the car’s plastic fascias blew towards us bystanders, I moved on. Crossing the resulting gridlock of Park Lane then northwards past Stanhope Gate and beyond I was astounded at the irregular street ends. Described by Ackroyd as “.. A remarkable physical token of the past – streets laid down upon the pattern of the old acre strips of a village (field) system of the Saxon period.” So where drivers sat drumming their fingers in stationary white vans and Chelsea Tractors, a lost world of pastoral serendipity lay metres below. Amid the asphalt rather than the meadow, the topography – albeit buried – remains unchanged.

In fact, during the 6th decade of each century since medieval times, Ackroyd tells us, London has suffered adverse architectural change – in particular, the great fire of 1666 but more generally, the 1760s when the surrounding Roman walls and gates were pulled down to allow greater trade to enter the city’s inner sanctum; the great Victorian building projects of the 1860s that helped the urban sprawl – and the disastrous town planning of the 1960s high-rise estates. And so London may suffer again in the 2060s, to erase the remnants of the 20th century!

My appointment that day was with a client in Paddington and after our espressos and handshakes I walked back south to see for myself another of the book’s revelations.  At the southeast corner of Connaught Square W2 (passing the armed police who guard the home of Tony and Cherie – round the clock, I think we say nowadays) I stopped to consider the original swinging Londoners at the corner with Seymour Street, considered by Ackroyd and other authorities to be the site of the Tyburn gallows.

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