Last week was the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London of 1666, a cataclysmic event in London’s history in which the medieval City of London, captured by the top notch Czech drawer and etcher, Wenceslaus Hollar in his ‘Panorama of London’ just 19 years earlier … was lost. Just under 14,000 homes were burned to the ground, along with 87 churches, including the gothic monster that was Old St Paul’s cathedral.
The occasion has been marked by a number of events, including a ceremonial burning of a wooden model replica of the old City on the Thames, the centre piece of a ‘London’s Burning’ weekend created by the creative company Artichoke. The Museum of London have a ‘Fire Fire’ exhibition which will be open until April 2017. A plethora of other exhibitions, talks, concerts and walks are happening throughout the City over the coming months, all of which are listed on the Visit London #GreatFire350 website.
When I first started learning stuff about London (in my early days of being a tour guide), there was something about the Great Fire that caught my imagination more than any other period or event. One of the things I very quickly discovered, learning about history, is that we never seem to actually learn anything. History certainly does seem to repeat itself, and the more I read about the Great Fire, the more connections I saw with the present day, many of which are (unfortunately, in my view) glossed over. Perhaps this is why we fail to learn. One of the main aspects of the fire that intrigued me, was not the immense destruction caused, but the reaction of Londoners, which manifested itself in xenophobic attacks; that omnipresent need to blame foreigners, those that ‘don’t belong’. Although today, kids are taught that the fire was an accident, their 17th century ancestors, had a very different view. As far as they were concerned, the Great Fire was a terrorist attack. I have read horrendous accounts of foreigners being bludgeoned to death in the street or hung up on make shift gallows and murdered, whilst the fire was raging. The first thing that the King, Charles II did upon entering the City to take control, was to arrest and imprison foreigners, to save them from the angry mobs. The Monument, which has stood since the 1670s, close to where the fire started on Pudding Lane, commemorating The Great Fire, is adorned with Latin inscriptions around the base. On the north side, the inscription detailing the aftermath and rebuilding of the City had a line removed in 1830, a line, which in itself was incendiary. In English it read “But Popish frenzy which wrought such horrors is not yet quenched” … or the nutter Catholics did this and we still haven’t sorted them out. Londoners in 1666 had good reason to suspect foul play, in fact, they’d be waiting for a revenge attack after an admiral in the English Navy called Robert Holmes, had just, a few weeks earlier, committed an absolutely unnecessary atrocity on Dutch soil, known as ‘Holmes’s Bonfire’, an act which Londoners had just been celebrating.
The Great Fire occurred also in a fascinating period of English history, just six years after the restoration of the ‘Merrie Monarch’ (after twelve years of being a Republic), one year after the Great Plague, whilst we were embroiled in war with the Dutch and were, as a country, financially crippled. All of this was well documented obviously by our very own diarist, philanderer and cheese burier, Samuel Pepys. A book entitled ‘1666: Plague, War & Hellfire’ by a young historian called Rebecca Rideal has just been published, examining this whole period of London’s tumultuous history. Had this book existed 8 years ago, I’m sure I would have found it an incredibly useful source of research, as it was about that time that I began writing a novel set in the days leading up to and during The Great Fire of London.
The novel, ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’ begins a few days before the fire breaks out, plunging a number of characters in to the midst of it. I began initially to try and write the idea as a film script, but very quickly realised that it wasn’t enough; I didn’t just want to write dialogue with brief descriptions like “He rows across the river”, “They walk down the street”. I wanted to know what the City smelt like, how it sounded, how it looked, what they wore, what they ate, what it tasted like and much more. Once I made the decision to turn my idea in to a novel, I realised I was creating a world of pain, and about 5 years later I finished it (that was two years ago).
The same xenophobic concerns and prejudices that permeated society in 1666 are very much still swirling around today, as illustrated by the recent EU Referendum ‘Brexit’ vote in June, and its aftermath and the rhetoric of Donald Trump in the States. The Great Fire of 1666 also opened the flood gates for violence and crime, after the thin veneer of law and order had been broken. I had actually already started writing Sixteen Sixty-Six in 2011 when the ‘London Riots’ broke out in various hot spots around the capital. At the time I was living very close to one of the affected areas in Hackney and realised that the behaviour I was seeing was exactly the same way Londoners behaved during those few days in September 1666. It was quite illuminating. This aspect of the Great Fire is just one piece in a much larger puzzle that forms ‘Sixteen Sixty-Six’, but certainly something I explore.
I have added a page to the website called 'Writing' where you can find a synopsis of Sixteen Sixty-Six. Maybe it’s rubbish, perhaps I’ve wasted 7 years of my life. Who knows … but if you think it is something you might like to read, have a Kindle or some kind of e-reading device then it is available to download through Amazon.
There seems to be an infinite number of books about London, which is only fitting for a city that is a bottomless pit of intrigue, history and possibilities. On my regular wanders around the city I have realised that I often talk about books that I have read and equally regularly, people make a note of the title or the author to look up when they get home. Sometimes people ask me for recommendations of books they should read, and as I have an ever burgeoning shelf of London based books, it suddenly occurred to me today, that I would write about them, whenever the mood takes me. I have decided to start with the most recent book I have read, and you never know, if the fad persists, then they will probably end up cataloged to the right of this page, under the title 'London Books'. These are not intended to be reviews, but merely bringing books that I have enjoyed to the attention of others.
So, the first book I shall mention is called 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead' by Catharine Arnold. It is the first book by Catharine Arnold that I have read, but with other books relating to London and its crime and punishment, its vices and its mad, it'd be a safe bet to say that she is very probably drawn to the darker side of London's history ... of which there is a great deal.
As is illustrated each time a significant building project is undertaken, like the current Walbrook Discovery Programme in the City of London, the capital is built on layer upon layer of history going back 2000 years or more. 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead' works in much the same way, but as the title suggests, concentrates solely on how the inhabitants of London have dealt with death and their dead. If you imagine the book as an archeological site, we start from the bottom with pagan burials, the Romans and plague epidemics and work our way up, through to the out of town Victorian cemeteries, body snatchers and what could almost be described as a fashion for mourning with Queen Victoria, who the author describes as 'the presiding genius of mourning' leading the way quite emphatically. This period, with the rise of the undertaker and etiquette surrounding funerals as a business is probably the most fleshed out section (no pun intended), and it's perhaps not surprising seeing that in her introduction, the author says that the idea for the book began by a plan to write solely about Highgate Cemetery. We continue burrowing upwards, contemplating the impact of the First World War and the annihilation of an entire generation of young men, not to mention the subsequent outbreak of Spanish Flu (of which I knew nothing) which killed hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Second World War obviously plays a significant role in the book and as we near the surface, we gather momentum, ending with the outpouring of grief that resulted in the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. One of the things you realise by reading the book is how even death (much like the deceased own lives), has been segregated and governed over the years, either by faith or social class, wealth and poverty. Like a full stop to end the whole journey, Catherine Arnold uses the London bombings of 2005 as a way of illustrating how present day London is a multi-cultural city, reflected in the deaths of the fifty-two known victims who belonged to all manner of faiths, and as she says as a final note ... 'there are many different ways to say goodbye'.
I have given a very brief and somewhat unsatisfactory encapsulation of this book, but in a nutshell ... if you have no interest in London and its dead, then I don't imagine you'll read this book. If however, you like wandering through London's cemeteries, or have even a mild fascination in London and its hidden plague pits or the numerous diseases that Londoners have had to contend with over the centuries, or read stories in newspapers about guys doing building work and finding hundreds of bodies and it sparks your intrigue, then you might like it.
I did a walk the other day, just after I'd finished reading 'NECROPOLIS - London and its dead'. One of the people who came, had been on a walk with me two weeks earlier (before I started reading the book). Funnily enough, she mentioned that her second walk with me was somewhat darker and more macabre in terms of what I talked about. Funny that. Also, by some weird coincidence, just after I'd finished reading the chapter about Victorian undertakers, a man from Thailand contacted me because he was researching an ancestor who had run an undertakers in Hoxton Square in the 1850's and was wondering if I could tell him what was on the site of the building now. He seemed to have done quite a bit of research, so I suggested he might like to read Catharine Arnold's book.
One last thing whilst I'm on the subject ... here's a thing I wrote ages ago about what happens if you go through the secret door in St Bride's crypt.
Bowl Of Chalk
Bowl Of Chalk based shenanigans.