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The openDemocracy walk

The Clerkenwell area of London, a place rich in history - religious, architectural, literary, political - was openDemocracy’s home for eight years. From the archive, the itinerary of a guided tour around it made by the team in December 2001.
David Hayes
11 May 2006

Introduction: to the openDemocracy team

The notion of having an afternoon works outing to Tate Modern seems to have collapsed in disarray. Likewise, my alternative concept to this mainstream suggestion, a venturesome tour of Spitalfields and its new museum of immigration, has also failed the test of practice. Thus, with a mixture of defiant bravado, mulish stubbornness and a sense of utter futility, I hereby propose an imaginative Third Way by announcing the first openDemocracy walk.

You are cordially invited to take part in a convivial, stress-free, rainless perambulation to explore the unknown but fascinating openWorld on our doorstep in the environs of Clerkenwell and Finsbury.

We will move in an arc that roughly encompasses St Bartholomew’s Hospital in the south, Bunhill Row in the east, Rosebery Avenue in the west, and Holford Square in the north.

The itinerary

We cross Goswell Road and make a pincer movement along Gee Street, noting the burgeoning signs of gentrification at the Rooftops flats. Anthony Barnett will explain that this is not a process to be deplored, but rather an opportunity for different layers of society to engage in a new, creative dialogue.

On the other side of Gee Street, we pause at the Stafford Cripps estate, named after a famous Labour Party politician, and observe the plaque unveiled at its opening in November 1953, inscribed with the names of the Finsbury Housing Committee. Here, David Hayes will celebrate the charm of ration-cards and expatiate on the lost virtues of the post-1945 social-democratic settlement (Kleenex optional).

Turning left, we pass the White Lion pub in Central Street, and cross over to observe the tennis-courts of the Finsbury Leisure Centre. Here, Caspar Melville will explain how the category of “leisure” in contemporary cultural discourse encodes the transition from collective to individual consumption of socially-available pleasure. This will be counter-factually illustrated by a visit to the 1931 Turkish Baths, swimming-pool and launderette in Ironmonger Row. 

Turning right, we pass the Britannia Arms and study a menu that includes the tasty Britannia Burger, and of course the Ploughman’s Lunch (described in the 1982 film of the same name, script by Ian McEwan, as “a completely successful fabrication of the past”). Moving along the desolation of Lever St, we observe the incongruously gorgeous cat who keeps a lookout from Lever Buildings, passing the Lord Nelson, the Guinness Trust Estate, and - those of a nervous disposition might wish to avert their eyes at this point - the 1960s Galway Street flats. Here, Dominic Hilton will explain why in the face of such horror, absurdism is the true realism. In response, Candida Clark will cite James Kelman, Kurt Vonnegut and Witold Gombrowicz, and a lively argument will ensue.

When Bola Gibson has restored calm, we proceed along Cayton Street to observe the King George V extension of Moorfields Eye Hospital. We then take our lives in our hands by crossing Old Street, and move down Mallow Street. Opposite the Artillery Arms, an enchanting oasis of repose and spiritual nourishment lies before us: Bunhill Fields, the historic burial-ground of many English freethinkers, nonconformists and dissenters. In a secluded corner we track down the grave of the 18th-century mathematician and vicar, Thomas Bayes. Here, amidst the fugitive sparrows, Paul Hilder will explain Bayes’s discoveries in probability theory and their contemporary relevance to the management of information in the computer age.

Meandering down Peerless Street, we observe the house where Voltaire allegedly stayed while writing Letters from England. Sarah Verblow will recall the extensive Huguenot influence in this part of London, and explain that we still have much to learn from the French, especially in the areas of public transport and the work-life balance.

After crossing the perilous City Road, we enter the courtyard of Wesley House. Outside the chapel where one Margaret Hilda Roberts married Denis Thatcher in 1951, Timothy Kiddell will explain why openDemocracy owes more to Methodism than to Marxism. At the entrance, we pause to view the statue of the preacher John Wesley, and contemplate its inscription with quietly purposeful reverence:

                                  The world is my parish.

Retreating through Bunhill Fields, we pass the burial site of John Bunyan, where Candida Clark will doff her metaphorical cap at this companionable observer of the “bigoted sectarian creeds”. Amidst the symbols of mourning and consolation, Rosemary Bechler will expostulate at society’s suffocating nostalgia and morbidity, which strangles our creative spirit, concluding her peroration by quoting the Clydeside revolutionary, John Maclean: “We are out for life and all that life can give us!”

A homage to William Blake’s place of interment is an opportunity for Candida Clark to reflect on why imagination is at the heart of everything we do. Here David Hayes recalls the truths that come from experience, and quotes the master craftsman: “I must create my own system, or be enslaved by another man’s!”  The visit ends with a chorus from the visionary poem Jerusalem.

We pause once more, then cross Dufferin Street and pass into the Quaker yard and gardens, observing the beautiful 1881 meeting-house. Here, we note the grave of George Fox (d 1692), founder of the Society of Friends. Bola Gibson will recall his injunction: “Go cheerfully about the world, and answer that of God in every man”.

Leaving this haunting place, we pass the small personal wall-plaque to Marna Shapiro, who died on 17 November 1994 - “a great lady who is very sadly missed”. Here, Maryam Maruf will talk sympathetically of the problems of older people in today’s relentlessly youth-oriented urban society.

Along Whitecross Street, we pass through the lively street-market. Viewing the stalls selling Thai food, the English butchers, the Maghrebi coffee bar, the Chinese medicine shop, and the Turkish restaurant, Claire Hinkley will celebrate the enriching hybridity of the megalopolis, in the précis of an article soon to be published worldwide in the international student-newspaper network.

At this point, in need of fortification, we take refuge in the corner café in St John Street (seating for twenty-four) where the friendly Portuguese owners will dispense food and bonhomie. Here, with the aid of salt-cellar, vinegar bottle, and Timothy Kiddell’s miniature chess-set, James Hamilton will explain the dialectics of house prices, the rental sector, global warming, and opportunities for property speculation in different parts of London.

Passing the beautiful display in the window of McQueen’s flower shop, Ceri Collingborn will comment on the different meanings of the “natural” in country and city, and how a sophisticatedly designed approach may come closer to the true rhythms of nature than a mere surrender to the concept of wildness.

We pass through the striking arcades of Smithfield meat market and cross to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, where a large plaque commemorates the gruesome execution of the Scots patriot and unbending champion of his country’s independence, William Wallace, on this site in 1305. Here we reflect on another dialectic, that of national and wider loyalties in a global age.

We make a detour to Cowcross St and look towards Saffron Hill, the site of Fagin’s den in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Then through the gatehouse of St John’s Priory, once part of the medieval Knights Hospitallers military-monastic order which was put to the fire by the vast insurgency of the new poor from the eastern counties in 1381 known as the “peasants’ revolt”.

In Sekforde Street, we observe the blue plaque to John Groom, the philanthropic pioneer of workshops for the disabled and “flower-girls”. Here, Francis Gooding will remind us that this area was the heartland of the 19th-century Italian community in Clerkenwell, further evidenced when we encounter the blue plaques to the nationalist hero Guiseppe Mazzini in Laystall Street and the famous clown Joseph Grimaldi in Exmouth Market.

We walk past the Peabody Estate, once part of this area’s rich provision of housing for the “respectable working class”, in this case owed to 19th-century philanthropists. A turn right, and we arrive at the Finsbury Health Centre, a renowned example of modernist architecture built in 1938 under the aegis of an enlightened social-democratic council. Berthold Lubetkin, the emigre Russian who designed it, saw it as embodying a “language of architectural forms firmly based on the aesthetics of our age, which conveys the optimistic message of our time - the century of the common man.”

We pass again through Exmouth Market to reach Finsbury Town Hall. Here, Maryam Maruf will draw attention to the faded but still visible plaque to Dadabhai Naoroji, elected as a Liberal MP - Britain’s first of Indian origin - in 1892. Just off Great Percy Street, in Holford Square, we observe the site where Lenin first met Trotsky during their exile here in October 1902. Here, Susan Richards will not need to explain anything at all about the century-long fate of her beloved Russia.

We pass the excellent St John St public library with its rich collection of local-history materials, then turn right and enter Clerkenwell Green, “the head of republicanism, radicalism and ultra nonconformity”. Here we pause at the building (now the Marx Memorial Library) where Lenin edited the Russian socialist newspaper Iskra (Spark) in 1902-03; inside, a giant socialist-realist mural - Worker of the Future Clearing away the Chaos of Capitalism - celebrates the international proletariat’s inevitable defeat of the hydra-headed bourgeoisie.

Across the way, we note the site where three Fenians (Irish nationalists) attempted to free an imprisoned comrade by blowing up Clerkenwell prison in 1867, killing twelve people in the process. Here too is the spot whence many trade union, radical and protest demonstrations began to advance their claims across the London of wealth and privilege.

After a short walk downwards to Farringdon Lane, we look south to see the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral standing high among the cranes, blocks and panes of a magnificently jumbled London skyline. Then, almost without noticing so unobtrusive it is, we arrive at the medieval Clerk’s Well - where it all began, the scribes gathering around from the nearby religious orders, taking the waters, having their lunch, planning their pious and riotous mystery plays, and complaining about their bosses. How much has changed over the centuries...

On the other side of the road, where railway tracks now run, we observe the course of that now-buried waif the River Fleet which flows through this area from its Hampstead-Highgate source. We can just glimpse the land here as it once was: fertile, sheltered, bounded yet in-between, uncaptured. To the east, marsh; to the west, the city; to the north, hills; to the south, power. A good place to be.

The light is starting to fade. Bola Gibson will remind everyone that it is time to be getting back, as there are five articles to be published before bedtime. Our sojourn has ended. We walk slowly back to Goswell Road, thoughtfully, thankfully, and longing for a cup of tea.   

David Hayes
7 December 2001

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