If you take a look at the map I’ve been compiling, you may notice something unusual. Zoom in on London and you will see that it is the area with the densest population of literary landmarks of anywhere in the world. The reasons for this are clear: it was for a long time one of the most important cities in the world; strong trading links and transport networks attracted people to the capital, among them publishers, booksellers & newspaper proprietors. Those skilful with pen and typewriter followed them and settled in the capital. Many of them kept a residence in the capital to conduct business before retreating to their country home.
Take a closer look and you will see that the distribution is not uniform. To the west of the city, plaques and memorials jostle for space amid the crowded streets. Frequently, writers houses are open for your perusal and reflection; there are pubs with literary clientele on every street corner and major places of worship provide sanctuary at the end of a long hard life. East of the city … very little: a pub or two, a few plaques and a couple of memorials. How can this be? The population in this part of the city is denser than the west: how did it produce so few writers? It’s poorer, for one. Downstream of the thames the water becomes slow, deep and wide. With easier access to the sea it makes sense to construct docks there. With docks come factories, warehouses and railways. Add to this the fact that the downwind, downstream side of major cities tends to be a bit dirtier, a bit shabbier, than the brighter, greener and more spacious upriver areas. Most of the writers I deal with in these essays tend to be successful. They’ve worked hard and made a few bob; why settle in the grimier areas of town?
Plenty of writers have made their home in the East End. Mary Wolstonecraft, proto-feminist and founder of a literary dynasty was born in Bethnal Green in 1759; Daniel Defoe, primarily known for Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, was a major literary figure of his age and helped to establish the novel as a literary form. He was born in Cripplegate in 1660 and educated in Stoke Newington; Arthur Morisson, a Victorian novelist who used the East End as an atmospheric backdrop to his literary oeuvre, was born in Poplar in 1863 and leaves no trace within the city and very little without. Anna Barbauld, one of the most important poets of her age: pioneer of the Romantic movement and influential to Wordsworth and Coleridge, moved to Stoke Newington in 1802 but has no monument in the area aside from one street name. Some East Enders merit plaques or memorials: Israel Zangwill, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Oludah Equiano and Cecil Day Lewis all have plaques in east London but, generally, memento literati are noticeable by their absence.
One of the reasons for this becomes apparent when travelling through the area. Take the Docklands Light Railway: a remarkable transport system which is fast, clean and reliable and has the added advantage of gliding over the town on an elevated trackway. From this vantage point you can see that there are very few buildings from before the 20th Century. There are plenty of 1960’s housing projects: 3 storey balconied buildings clustered around a central recreational space; a few 70s concrete tower blocks and the newer steel-and-glass luxury apartments, built to attract the more affluent house buyer during the redevelopment of docklands in the 90s and 00s. In between these are little oases of older settlements: some medieval churches, the odd Victorian terrace, an old East End boozer standing alone in what was once a thriving thoroughfare. The whole area, from 9th September 1940 onwards, was subject to the most vicious and concentrated bombing campaign in human history. That any of it remains at all is remarkable: testament to the dedication of those that protected, fought fires, cleared bomb sites and rebuilt after the Blitz. It is difficult to imagine, from our relatively safe perspective, the scale of such devastation.
I visited the East End recently to visit an ex-student. I have taught a number of people who have gone on to gain a great deal of success in various fields. I like to keep in touch with them. Not because I am particularly concerned about their progress but because there is a chance that they will, one day, become rich and want to reward me for the support and guidance I gave them in their formative years. One such case is Mr C. He was my student about eight years ago before I packed him off to Cambridge and is now building a promising career in journalism. Mr C contacted me recently and offered to meet me and keep me up on his progress. I feigned interest, thinking there may be a free lunch in the offing. He lives in Greenwich, a small town to the east of London, on the south bank of the Thames.
I suggested we meet at The Prospect of Whitby. A pub on the water’s edge in Wapping, taking its name from a coal ship that was once permanently moored outside. Being close to execution dock, it did a fine trade in the 1700s, when crowds would flock to watch those charged with piracy take the drop nearby. There is a noose hanging on the deck outside the bar as a reminder of this grisly past. Inside, there is a pewter topped bar: a rare Victorian artefact, and a great deal of timber. There is a fine vista of the Thames from the large windows, which I found reminiscent of those on a sailing ship. It certainly has a distinctly Victorian feel. Dickens was familiar with ‘The Prospect’ would visit it during his nighttime walks through the grimier parts of the capital. He had an uncle that lived in Limehouse, just a short walk from here, and would frequently visit The Grapes, which was our next port of call.
The areas we walked through now, though they once had the reputation of being unsafe and dirty, were pleasant and green. There was a cosmopolitan feel about the place. People from nearby communities, along with tourists and city workers, played and took the air: running after children and exercising dogs; cycling and jogging. I heard a variety of accents spoken as people chatted and walked. There was a low autumn sun casting long golden shadows and it was a lovely place for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. We walked along the side of the river, marvelling at the scale of development of Docklands. Sometimes, the path would dive away from the bank and head inland, taking us through a little park or green space in the midst of the grey and brown urban landscape. The path eventually spat us onto Narrow Street, which we followed to where it crossed the entrance to the canal basin, where we paused to have a look at the boats.
This is where the Grand Union Canal joins the river Thames, bringing the goods produced in the industrial heartlands of the midlands to the docks, to be carried throughout the empire. Canals were originally built when an entrepreneurial duke realised that the goods he was shipping by river were reaching their destinations faster than those he sent by road. Waterways saw a lucrative trade in the late 18th Century, providing a livelihood for many families but, like betamax videos and fax machines, their window of usefulness was short. Railways came to provide a faster alternative and they became used only for the most fragile of goods. They quickly fell into disrepair. Now, as well as a picturesque part of our countryside, providing peaceful places for walkers, anglers and boaters, they are fast becoming a useful resource for property investors. A boat with a mooring in central London now costs almost as much as a small house. This is making it very difficult for people who embrace life on the canals as a useful and cheap alternative to the rat race and I think this is very sad.
Just beyond the canal bridge is The Grapes. Well known by Dickens, he used it as the basis for The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters, in Our Mutual Friend.
“A tavern of dropsical appearance, long settled into a state of hale infirmity. It had outlasted many a sprucer public house, indeed the whole house impended over the water but seemed to have got into the condition of a faint-hearted diver, who has paused so long on the brink that he will never go in at all.”
It does seem to hover on the river bank. It is a lovely, welcoming little pub. Owned by Sir Ian McKellen, he has equipped the bar with a complete collection of Dickens novels and portraits of the great man abound throughout. Mr C and I sat in the back bar, next to a display cabinet of old volumes of Dickens with a lovely view of the Thames. It was cosy and snug and we enjoyed a lovely pint and they did a cracking Sunday roast too: plates piled high with roast beef and all the trimmings. There is a little decked area overlooking the Thames. We moved out there to admire the view and it was so agreeable that I could quite easily have drifted off for my usual Sunday afternoon snooze.
We wandered back up to the DLR and took the train to Greenwich. It had turned into a warm afternoon, and throngs of people crowded the little town: there were buskers and ice cream sellers and the pubs were spilling their customers onto the surrounding pavements. It had a lovely, holiday atmosphere. Mr C and I crossed Deptford Creek and wound through some modern and expensive looking housing to St. Nicholas’ Church. It is a brick building dating from about 1700, rebuilt after bombing in the Second World War. This replaces an earlier, medieval structure, the tower of which remains. On one quiet, lonely wall is a simple plaque stating that this was the final resting place of Christopher Marlowe, although the exact location of his grave is unknown.
I have written extensively about Shakespeare and the Globe Theatre and Stratford-upon-Avon and the mini industry that has grown up around our national poet. That Marlowe’s grave is not even marked is remarkable as, in his own time at least, he was considered the better writer. Born in 1564, the same year as Shakespeare, in Canterbury, Marlowe came from similar beginnings: Shakespeare was a glover’s son; Marlowe a shoemaker’s. Marlowe, unlike Shakespeare, went to university. Shortly after leaving Cambridge, Marlowe seems to have been inducted into Francis Walsingham’s secret service, and worked as a spy for the Elizabethan court. For someone supposed to be working covertly, Marlowe attracted a lot of attention. He was outspoken in his opinions, professed atheism and was indiscrete in his attraction towards young men.
“All they that love not tobacco and boys are fools.”
– attributed to Christopher Marlowe
The details of Marlowe’s death are uncertain: he went drinking at an alehouse by Deptford Creek and, when it was time to pay the bill, there was an argument. One of his companions, Ingram Frizer, stabbed him in the head, killing him instantly. Several theories have grown up around this event, including that his death was faked and that he continued to write, using Shakespeare as a proxy for his work. Whatever the circumstances of his death, he was quietly taken to the nearest churchyard and unceremoniously thrown into an unmarked grave. He leaves six plays, one of which, Doctor Faustus, is a fine example of Elizabethan drama and is still frequently studied and performed. Mr. C and I wandered back into Greenwich, where we chatted over a further pint, before I embarked on the journey home.
East London has always been home to communities from throughout the world, enriching our stale culture with new colours, flavours, sounds and, of course, writing.Emanuel Litvinoff, who was born in Bethnal Green in 1915, wrote novels depicting life within the Jewish ghettos of the East End. Sajid Zaheer, whose ‘London ki Ek Raat’, depicts anti-colonial sentiment in London, was published in 1938. Now, new generations of people are growing up in east London. Among them, Journalist and novelist, Kia Abdullah, born in Tower Hamlets in 1982 and political writer Ed Hussain was born in Mile End in 1974. Monica Ali, whose masterpiece, Brick Lane, set among London’s Bangladeshi community, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2003. Although a large part of our heritage was destroyed during the Blitz, the London that has grown from the ashes, is richer and more diverse than before.
When Christopher Wren began work on St. Paul’s Cathedral after the great fire of London, he picked up an old tombstone to mark the centre of his new building. On it was written a single word, which became a motto for the cathedral and the city. ‘Resurgam’: I shall rise again.