Today I came across an old book that was given to me by my father some 25 plus years ago. It wasn’t new when he gave it to me; he had obviously had it for some time. But he was a great reader and loved to share his knowledge with his daughters.The book is written by Emil Otto Hoppé (14 April 1878 – 9 December 1972) German-born British portrait, travel, and topographic photographer.
I have no idea when this book was published but the London to which it refers is a far cry from the London in which I grew up or indeed the London of today.
It talks of leafy lanes and villages and tells us: “To the visitor from the Provinces or from abroad London must seem at first sight to be a stupefying maze of brick, tile and slate whose main purpose is to support millions of crazily pitched and variously patterned domestic chimney pots….” Well of course nowadays no open fires are allowed in London but many of the chimney pots remain.
Vachel Lindsay the so called, “Prairie Troubadour” was in London in 1920 and apparently when asked (by Mr Hoppe) what had struck him most about the town he had described as “The lovely lady London” he responded “Maybe it was seeing the squirrels playing among the leaves in Russell Square and the wild ducks scudding across the sunset high over Hyde Park”. Well the squirrels and the ducks may still be seen but London has changed dramatically since Lindsay visited.
Of course, I most enjoy reading about the East End of London which is where I was brought up. The book must have been written after the Second World War but there is no notation as to date of publication. However, Hoppe says of the East End “Here amid the wilderness of bricks and mortar, where the Luftwaffe let loose its fiercest furies there is a profusion of flowers and shrubberies”.
A favourite playground for us was Victoria Park that Hoppe describes as the Hyde Park of the East End. He describes the shady walks of the park, lily pools and swings and roundabouts and “one of the loveliest lakes in England”. All this was still there for three little girls to enjoy. But sadly things change, and the park is no longer an idyllic place for children to play alone.
The Hackney Marsh is another memory from long ago. And here (of course before my time) Dick Turpin and Claude Duval used to hide from the Kings men and clatter past Queen Elizabeth’s Lodge at Chingford.
And now I am off in the direction of another favourite poem The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. Do you know this poem? And what part was brought to mind by the above paragraph?
And still on a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a gypsy’s ribbon looping the purple moor,
The highwayman comes riding, riding, riding
The highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs in the dark inn-yard,
He taps with his whip on the shutters, but all is locked and barred,
He whistles a tune to the window, and who should be waiting there
But the landlord’s black-eyed daughter
Bess, the landlord’s daughter
Plaiting a dark red love-knot into her long black hair.
If you don’t know this poem or want to refresh your memory – click here for the rest of it.
And on the other side of the River Thames, an area not really known to us when we were growing up but still in the East End, Hoppe shows us `pictures of Calvert Court in Southwark which was standing when Chaucer’s “nine and twenty pilgrims” set out for Canterbury and the George Inn, Southwark, the solitary surviving medieval inn now owned and operated by the National Trust.
Here you can walk where Shakespeare walked – Bankside where we are told that Shakespeare walked every day composing Lear and Hamlet and Ariel in his head. Here too is the Rose Theatre, London’s most historic theatre. The first Elizabethan Theatre on Bankside and home to many of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s first productions. Of course, The Globe Theatre is close by just through Cardinal Cap Alley famous for the fact that this was the way to the brothels in medieval times.
And let’s not forget that it was here that Dr Jekyll used to go when he turned into Mr Hyde.
And this area is so steeped in history. Pickwick walked here, Browning and Joseph Chamberlain were born here, Byron went to school and the Victorian art critic, John Ruskin,lived here.
As I have often said before Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I find this all so interesting, familiar and comforting.
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, English Poet, Critic and Writer 1709 – 1784
And may I please interject with a bit of nonsense I remember from so many years ago. It must be read with an East End accent. So –
With a pair of steps and glasses
You could see the ‘ackney marshes
If it wasn’t for the ‘ouses in between”
Note the use of ‘ denotes the dropping of the aitches as common in the East End.