Jennifer Johnson has always lived in London, except for a few years spent in Brussels and Oxford. She is currently studying at Birkbeck, University of London, for the MA in Creative Writing. This is the 14th article in our regular series “My London”.
London has many meanings for me. I was born here, have lived in this city for all but ten years of my life, so I can trace my story along its streets. Every time I drive, or am driven, around Hyde Park Corner, I can see the hospital where I began, though now it is a luxury hotel. There are familiar journeys I have made so many times that their topography must be hard wired into my brain, like the connections learned by trainee taxi drivers as they acquire The Knowledge. Even if the buildings transmute, like old St George’s, or disappear, like the row of shops running down to Swiss Cottage at the bottom of Fitzjohn’s Avenue – where my mother stopped on the way home after collecting me from school, to buy vegetables from Jack the greengrocer – even as these vanish, as trees are felled or planted, pavements sliced or extended, the roads from Hampstead southwards into the West End, from Marble Arch to South Kensington, or the exit routes, traversing the north eastern or south western suburbs, these are still traceable.
Along the roads I have travelled most sometimes ghosts of my former selves sit beside me in car or bus; and where I walked, I am as layered and multi-referenced as London itself, as old cities are, bearing traces of all their past, visible and invisible. I can encounter all the people I have been and all those I have known. In Chelsea I am still nineteen, walking along the King’s Road, or a little later, entering the loved, un-prettified Royal Court theatre when it still had its unique edge. If I take a certain path through Regent’s Park I can be twelve, going home with a heavy satchel; along another, ten years on, I walked with someone I used to know, who told me a secret and whom I married, and who later died. At the top of Primrose Hill stands the child I was, waiting my turn to toboggan down a slope barely covered in snow, or the mother I later became, pointing out landmarks to my own children.
I’ve spent half my life married to a man who has a house to remember him- self in; though we only visit it a few times a year it is the house on Exmoor where he grew up. He can find his twelve year-old self easily on the stairs, at nineteen glimpsed through a window, or at any age sitting at the same kitchen table. I quite envy him that luxury but back in London I then think that mine is the more exciting mirror; I can always find myself but some- times I have to look harder, and sometimes I’m not there.
When in doubt I return underground. For all the changes – the new lines adding flourishes to the east, or the smartened trains, brightly lit and up- holstered – nothing erases the familiar and reassuring truth of Harry Beck’s map, that unrepresentative representation, signifying directions and relations but not actual distances. Nor have the changes eradicated the smell, that warm, mechanical odour. Sometimes at street level the London of now can be too strident, too obsessed with image and wealth. Leaving the street, entering the subterranean world, always seems a reconnection to London’s essence.
If this city contains my past in both the physical, concrete forms of houses, flats, rooms once inhabited and pathways taken, and the spiritual in those memories of myself I encounter daily it also offers me the possibility of making new memories, laying down imprints for the future.
A few months ago I decided to take the Underground to a station I had never been to before. I chose to go south of the river, to Rotherhithe. There was a resonance to the name that appealed to me and the station had the charm of being on the Overground which I had not yet tried. It was a fine Saturday morning, and as the train made its way through unfamiliar East London even the passengers had an exotic look, young and sharply dressed as they were. No one else got off at Rotherhithe. Uncertain which way to go, for I had no plan beyond getting there, I looked around and saw a signpost to the river, pointing down a side street. As I turned and walked towards the water I could smell its freshness on the wind, but before I reached the embankment I made one of those serendipitous discoveries that are the joy of the city. On a white, curving wall ahead I read the words ‘Brunel Museum’ written in large black letters and beyond the wall I saw a modest, red-brick building. At the door stood an elderly man who greeted me, ‘Welcome Madam, to the eighth wonder of the world.’ The wonder, and wonder it is, is the first tunnel ever built under a river by Marc Brunel and his son Isambard, begun in 1825 and completed in 1843. The little museum is housed in a pumping shed and interesting enough with displays, scale models and such that tell the story of how the tunnel was constructed. One poster tells how young Isambard, only nineteen years old when this project began, almost lost his life when the shaft flooded.
The real splendour however is to enter the shaft leading down to the tunnel itself. To get inside you have to crouch down and go through a low door of Alice in Wonderland scale, emerging into a dark, soot-encrusted inverted circular tower, some fifty feet in diameter, with a crude scaffolding stair- way leading down to its floor below. In the chill and echoing gloom the voice of the guide describes the grand opening of the tunnel that stretches under the river from Rotherhithe to Wapping. Thousands of people came from all over the world. They descended a grander wooden staircase to the Great Entrance Hall leading to the tunnel mouth. Now a solid floor separates us from the railway tunnel below, I could hear the rumble of trains.
Closer to home, back near Regent’s Park which features so much in my London, I have found another underground story, but one I only visit in my imagination, and my connection is more tangential.
As acres of buildings all over London are demolished and replaced, there are disruptions under the surface too. On the Hampstead Road there stands a long abandoned hospital, boarded up now, a rambling, late nineteenth- century chaos of a building, with turrets and balconies. Behind it lies a small park, called St James’s Gardens. You could take a short cut through to Euston here, if that was your destination, though you might think twice if too many winos were installed on one of the benches. It doesn’t look like much now, but it is all that is left of a four acre graveyard, land acquired by St James’s Piccadilly in the 1780s when they ran out of burial space. One or two tombs survive, though cracked and gaping like a Stanley Spencer vision, and a few tombstones are propped against trees, or half hidden in the grass. One man buried here in 1814 was Captain Matthew Flinders, and I only knew of him because I visited an island named after him, off the coast of Tasmania. He sailed with Cook, was the rst to circumnavigate, and name, Australia, where today he is far better known than he is here. He then came home to London where he died, aged 40. I read all this in a guide book and found that he was buried here, in St James’s Burial Ground, as it then was. That his grave is no longer here today is not so surprising, the railway has eaten deep into the once four acres and will do so again, but I was saddened to learn that he is thought to lie under platform 15 at Euston station. At least there is a ne statue of him now on the station concourse but when I went to see it I thought him unnoticed, as passengers sat on the edge of the round, wide plinth, waiting for their trains.
Whenever I pass that way I make a point of stopping to look at him, a recent addition to the memories and connections that make up my London.
By Jennifer Johnson