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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, January 11, 2007
    Sacrilising the city
    I'm at my usual London blog-spot on Tottenham Court Road having just deposited a large cheque in the Cooperative Bank on Southampton Row. A generous bursary from Ecclesiastical Insurance towards my sabbatical. The friendly little awards ceremony and lunch took place in the Chapter House of St Paul's Cathedral and naturally, given that the whole nature of the project which Ecclesiastical are supporting is about urban walking, I journeyed there on foot from Euston.

    Great read on the train journey down, Robert Bond's introduction to the work of London's great footsore literary fetishist Iain Sinclair. Whereas I came to Sinclair, like many people, through his mainstream London texts like Lights Out for the Territory and - especially - London Orbital, Bond reminds the reader that Sinclair is first (and possibly still foremost) an underground poet. I also found revealing something that to cleverer readers may be obvious - Bond's suggestion that Sinclair's poetic method of finding signs in the city where others only see stones, of making mystical connections between urban sites which others just could not link - this is a work of sacrilising the city. And I guess I hope my project can do a bit of that, too.

    I sit now in the place where another great sacriliser of the city used to roam - William Blake, wanderer of the fields behind Tottenham Court Road, with whom Sinclair may be seen to have quite a bit in common. En-route to St Paul's and back, my walk took me past Newgate, marked now by a plaque which made me momentarily wonder why it had gone and what had happened there at what was once, I guess, a pivotal passing-point into the city.

    My quest to enjoy my free time in London led me to do some pilgrim searching - around some underground bookshops on the Sinclair trail and ending up at Bookmarks where I discovered Judy Cox's William Blake: The Scourge of Tyrants, a small book which 'cuts away all the romantic and reactionary drivel written about him, and reveals him as a prophet of liberation - political, artistic and sexual liberation.' [Paul Foot]. Blake can't be too easily placed among the ranks of those Sinclair calls the reforgotton, authors whose urban outpourings have been left outside the canon of London writing, because so much has been written about him, and more will come in this 250th anniversary year. But in attempting to re-member the whole Blake, to recover crucial aspects of the man which have nevertheless slipped from the canon, Cox's is a good and valuable project.

    And in that book on Blake I find a reference to Newgate - site of the climax of the Gordon Riots in 1780 when Newgate Jail was burned and the prisoners freed. Blake was one of the ringleaders of this 'proletarian' attack on a major institution of the 'imperial ruling class', the first of its kind in London's history. I tremble now to think that in simply journeying from Newgate back to here (Holburn - High Holburn - St Giles, stopping only to gaze at the stock of Shervingtons the tobacconists) I may have retraced the steps of Blake on that fateful day, clothes scorched, smoke in his wild hair, revolution in his eyes.

    I don't quite know what to do with that knowledge, nor do I quite see how it relates to present-day Newgate with its massive sites of international finance, nor contemporary Tottenham Court Road, its internet cafes and audio showrooms a buzzing global marketplace. Maybe these imperfect connections, made on foot, are an encouragement that other spirits are still at work in the city, that hidden, reforgotten works are still being made and though they will always be outside the canon, they are there to be discovered in the city's details.