"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Monday, 10 January 2011

Past Traces

In his masterly work London The Biography Peter Ackroyd describes the history of London as a "palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths".  Evidence of the past manifests itself all over the city - in street names and maps, memorials and statues, churches and ruins but also in the atmosphere of a particular place.  According to Ackroyd in London "the past is a form of occluded but fruitful memory, in which the presence of earlier generations is felt rather than seen".

This is not the London of the tourist guide or sightseeing tour with their historical facts and re-enactments or tales of ghosts and murders.  Rather it is to be felt as a kind of resonance, whilst wandering some unremarkable street, lingering in some old and dusty churchyard, seeing the layers of different architectural styles jostling cheek by jowl - the endless cycle of destruction and renewal.

Nicholas Dyer, the protagonist in Ackroyd's novel Hawksmoor describes this phenomenon thus : 
  "We live off the Past: it is in our Words and our Syllables.  It is reverberant in our streets and courts,so that we can scarce walk across the stones without being reminded of those who walked there before us; the Ages before our own are like an Eclipse which blots out the Clocks and Watches of our present Artificers and, in that Darkness, the Generations jostle one another.  It is the dark of Time from which we come and to which we will return".

As I wander the city streets, I like to think that I am one in a long line of those who have passed this way before.

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