I’m not talking about the restaurant in London’s ever increasingly trendy Commercial Street/Brick Lane area, I’m not even talking about the man. You know the man I mean, mate of Sir Christopher Wren and architect of some of London’s finest churches. What I am going to talk about is Hawksmoor the book, written by Peter Ackroyd in 1985 and winner of that year’s Whitbread Prize & The Guardian’s Fiction Prize, and discovered by me a few years later. When I say discovered I actually mean given to me as a present by, I think, an ex-boyfriend of Big Sis (if was from you, Big Sis, apologies but the memory isn’t what it was, know what I mean?). I’m not sure on what basis he decided I’d like it but he clearly saw something in me that made him think it worth the effort. At this stage in my life I was still emerging from childhood really. I’d lived in and around London all my life but as is the case with many Londoners hadn’t really paid much attention to the city itself. I’d been far too busy playing football, cricket and occasionally a bit of golf. Cultural things pretty much passed me by until my early 20’s and only really started to change after I’d read this book and met the future Mrs Cabbie.
As I write this It actually sounds somewhat over the top that one book can make such a difference, but books do make a difference and Hawksmoor is the one that changed me and my perception of London forever. When I look at my book shelves now I see plenty of other Peter Ackroyd books; Chatterton, English Music, The Plato Papers, The Lambs of London, London the Biography (of course), Dickens and Thomas More. (Quick confession, I’ve struggled with the Dickens book for years and probably only read half of it – but I will persevere) But it’s not the fact that I got hooked on these books, it’s the fact that they have opened the door to a whole range of other London books; On A Grander Scale, London in the 19th Century, East End Chronicles and my current read – London: A Pilgrimage by Blanchord Jerrold with fantastic illustrations from Gustave Dore. Without that door being kicked open, a la Jack Regan in The Sweeney, I may still have been a one dimensional sports freak.
I’m not going give you any particular clue as to what the book is about, read here if you really want a clue, as I’d love at least one person to be inspired enough by what I’ve written here to go out and read it. But the underlying message of the book, and a theme that underlies Ackroyd’s whole view of London, is that history is not a static thing, it weaves itself in and around the city, popping out unexpectedly in ways that take you by surprise. There is also his view, now fully shared by yours truly, that areas of London have an underlying energy, one that will will override all attempts to gentrify or change them. In London the Biography, Ackroyd talks about how Clerkenwell has always been an area of civil disobedience and unrest in London, and to this day seems to maintain an air of being a little bit different from the rest of the city, somehow outside the law. But I think of other places in London, where I live in Tooting being one, the Holloway Road being another, that seem to have some sort of underlying energy or life force that keeps them from changing. People will talk about places like Tooting & the Holloway Road in disparaging terms, but I love them, they have a vitality and vigour that many other places in London have lost through the gentrification process. I’m not a Luddite, I’m happy to embrace change, but let’s not knock the heart out of the vibrant parts of our city. Enough evangelical nonsense for now then, I think I’ve put across my point: London, in my humble opinion, is much, much more than the sum of it’s part, a mass of energy that doesn’t just go away when people move on. This is what Hawksmoor taught me, and this is what now drives everything I think and do in this great city.
Thanks for listening, and if you haven’t already, go read the book.