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Streets of the imagination

Red Pepper, October-November 2011

Events over the summer brought to mind William Blake’s uncompromisingly angry poem “London”, written in the early 1790s under the impact of revolution in France and repression at home. The poet wanders “through the charter’d streets / near where the charter’d Thames does flow” where he encounters signs of widespread distress. He hears the sound of “the mind-forg’d manacles”, the fears and prejudices that keep people in thrall to an unjust social system. Above all he sees the exploitation of youth: chimney sweeps, soldiers, prostitutes – victims of state, church and commerce, Blake’s tyrannical trinity.

Blake called London’s streets “charter’d” because so much of the city’s economic life was subject to “charters” granting exclusive privileges to private corporations. In 1791, they had been denounced by Thomas Paine as “aristocratical monopolies” because of which “an Englishman is not free of his own country; every one of those places presents a barrier in his way, and tells him he is not a freeman – that he has no rights.”

In “London” Blake confronts what we would call today a privatised London (even the river), whose ultimate manifestation is prostitution. “But most through midnite streets I hear / The youthful harlot’s curse” – the contractual commodification of desire, which serves, ironically, to spread sexually transmitted disease. Marriage and prostitution are daringly linked as the twin sides of a pervasive social hypocrisy. The poem ends with the chilling, terrifically compressed image of “the marriage hearse”, society’s primary institution of social reproduction damned as a carrier of death.

All this from a walk around London, at that time the world’s largest and fastest-growing city. Nowhere else was there such a convergence of wealth and poverty; nowhere else was the market so ruthlessly dominant.

Blake was a lifelong Londoner. Along with Shakespeare, an adoptive Londoner, he is the least well travelled of all major English poets – venturing no further than the Thames estuary and the Sussex coast. As a journeyman engraver, he was one of many London artisans drawn to radical ideas in religion and politics, and from whose ranks the London Corresponding Society, Britain’s first plebeian political organisation, was formed in 1792.

Blake grew up in the London of “Wilkes and Liberty” and always avowed himself “a Liberty Boy”. Like most London artisans he supported the American revolution. And when London exploded in five days of riots, the most extensive in the city’s history, in June 1780, he was there – at the front of the crowd, whether by accident or design.

The ‘Gordon Riots’ began in anti-Catholic demonstrations whipped up by the maverick MP George Gordon; in their initial phase, Catholic places of worship and businesses (mostly foreign merchants) were attacked, though no Catholics were killed. Soon the crowd, having mastered the streets, changed tack and targets, turning its ire on the Bank of England, the homes of judges (ransacking the mansion of the Lord Chief Justice), and above all the jails. They broke open crimping houses (where impressed sailors were confined), debtors’ hostels, and one after another all the city’s prisons, culminating in Newgate – the biggest and most notorious of them all, London’s Bastille. Hundreds of prisoners were released and the building was burnt to the ground.

According to Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, writing in the 1860s, Blake was minding his own business at his home in Soho when: “Suddenly he encountered the advancing wave of triumphant blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison.” To which a London magistrate in 2011 would mutter “a likely story!” before imposing a maximum sentence.

It took 10,000 troops to suppress the riots. Betwewen three and four thousand rioters were killed. 450 were arrested. 25 hanged. How “political” were these events? Who were the rioters and what did they seek? In The London Hanged, Peter Linebaugh identifies diverse participants: apprentices, artisans, domestic servants, tripe-sellers, coffee house waiters, laundresses, seamstresses, as well as a number of African-Americans, ex-slaves who made up 6-7% of London’s population. When Thomas Haycock, a waiter, was asked by a judge why he had rioted, he replied simply: “The cause”. Which cause? Haycock explained: “There should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.”

Blake was 23, had just completed his apprenticeship and commenced what would prove to be a deeply frustrating career as an under-employed engraver. In every respect he fit the profile of the rioter and if he later recast his participation as involuntary, there’s no doubt of the event’s impact on him. That year he first conceived the image later titled “Glad Day” or “Albion Rose” – in which a classically proportioned male youth springs majestically from the earth, embodying the exaltation and energy of liberation. Some time later he gave it the caption:

Albion rose from where he labour’d at the mill with slaves
Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.

Blake was to live through decades of war and reaction. His hopes for public recognition and an escape from penury were repeatedly dashed. But he pursued his lonely prophetic vocation and continued to produce stunningly original poems and images. He spent his last years in a two room flat in an insalubrious tenement adjacent to where the Savoy Hotel now stands. The one redeeming feature was the small window that afforded a view of the ever-busy Thames.

To the end Blake remained responsive to London’s confused, generous, mean-minded, moody, all-powerful and impotent crowd, and to the hypocrisies of its rulers. “I behold London,” he exclaimed, “a Human awful wonder of God!” In his final masterpiece, Jerusalem, completed in 1820, Blake remembered London’s unwilling warriors, the sailors in the crimping houses:

We were carried away in thousands from London; & in tens
Of thousands from Westminster & Marybone in ships closd up:
Chaind hand & foot, compelld to fight under the iron whips
Of our captains; fearing our officers more than the enemy.

For Blake, London is a psyche, a city of the mind. “My Streets are my Ideas of Imagination,” he has it declare, “My Houses are Thoughts; my Inhabitants, Affections.” It is both microcosm (of human civilisation) and macrocosm (containing many worlds). It exists everywhere and nowhere, always and never, like “Lambeth’s Vale / Where Jerusalem’s foundations began; where they were laid in ruins.”

In the rhythmic litanies of London place-names found in Blake’s later works, the poet traces the course of his giant visionary forms: from “Highgate’s heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar Hackney & Bow: / To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albions River / We builded Jerusalem…” Out of familiar workaday London, Blake conjures a sanctified geography, treating the modern city and its neighbourhoods the way the Bible treats ancient Palestine. He sees the metropolis as a decisive battleground in an epic spiritual-political struggle through which “intellectual war” must overcome “corporeal war”. Here Los, the poet-prophet-blacksmith, labours at his forge. “On the banks of the Thames, Los builded Golgonooza” – a multifaceted, jewel-like city of applied imagination, Blake’s capital of artisans. “In fears he builded it, in rage & in fury. It is the Spiritual Fourfold London: continually building & continually decaying desolate!”

Finally, Blake sees liberated London as a meeting-place for all that is human: “In the Exchanges of London every Nation walk’d, / And London walk’d in every Nation, mutual in love & harmony.”

This is a defiantly Republican London. A London without Kings or Priests or financiers or their “hirelings”, the publicists and apologists whom Blake reviled. A London of free labourers, in which individual and collective creativity flourish together, a city thriving off the dialectic of the one and the many.