Monday, 17 September 2012

London, Then and Now

Now that I am living in the country, it's become even more important for me to visit the capital. Not just for research or to meet my editors, although those are vital elements of my life as a writer. But also to experience that wonderful contrast between country and capital, the peaceful greenery of a rural farmhouse versus the hustle and bustle of a world-class city.

It keeps me alive and my senses sparking to be walking the streets of London. I was born and brought up just beyond the East End, in a suburban area of Essex, so I've known London since I was a young child. In a way, then, visiting the capital is about making a connection between my present and past selves. It's a matter of nostalgia as well an opportunity to make new discoveries - for there are always new things to be seen and done in London. It's that kind of city, constantly renewing itself or revealing long-buried secrets.

I would love to live in London at some point. But with prices as high as they are, that seems unlikely at the moment. I'm also enjoying the rural life again, and these frequent visits keep me from getting too bored in the country. But maybe one day ...

This time, I spent some time walking along the river at Bankside, peering up and down the greyish-brown expanse of the Thames, and trying to imagine how it would have been in Tudor times. Far broader, of course, with the water washing up against the moss-green bases of the riverside buildings, and little channels or hidden docks running away into the city every few hundred yards. The Fleet river pours out near here, on the north bank opposite, under what is now Blackfriars Bridge, to swell an already burgeoning tidal river. Leaf-clogged now in autumn, with plastic rubbish bobbing on the brown scum, it would have been awash with yet more debris in Tudor times. Human sewage, castaway items, broken spars, perhaps even the occasional corpse to add to the stench, especially in high summer.

These banks and muddy shores would have been a place for waders after floating treasure, for fishermen and watermen, dragging boats in and out of the current. And with London Bridge, its narrow gateway hidden now at the church of St Magnus the Martyr, marking the only crossing place on foot, the waters themselves would have been crowded with boats of every size and description - most noticeably in the later Elizabethan era, when the city was smaller and Bankside became even more popular with visitors and Londoners alike than it is today. For Bankside was outside the jurisdiction of the City Fathers, a place where brothels, gambling, and the various evils of the playhouse and baiting pits could continue relatively unchallenged.

While I was wandering the river, and taking a boat trip down towards Tower Bridge, my husband headed for Aldgate. For he too is writing a novel, this one about the plague pits of London, and this trip involved research for him in the Aldgate area, where he took copious notes and investigated several important leads.

Afterwards, we met up below St Paul's on the north end of the Millennium Bridge, and strolled across in a light evening breeze to Bankside. The bridges and riverbank were lit up gloriously - it would have been mostly dark in Tudor times, by contrast, except for candlelit windows and the torches of link boys, and perhaps the bobbing lights of watermen ferrying passengers back and forth across the river - and it was a pleasure to mingle with the crowds making their way into the Globe Theatre for an evening's performance.

We ate a delicious Greek meal at The Real Greek (below) near Southwark Bridge, then wandered further along under the archways and towards Southwark Cathedral, lit up in the darkness. We admired the twelth century ruins of Winchester Palace on Clink Street, then came to the reconstruction of Sir Francis Drake's ship, The Golden Hinde, in which Drake circumnavigated the globe in 1577, now bobbing in a tiny dock at St Mary Overie Wharf, next to the Financial Times building.

I don't believe, for all our advances, that Tudor London was so very different a place from London of today. I expect we followed a fairly traditional route as visitors, albeit crossing different bridges and taking other modes of transport around the city. But many visitors to London in the late 1500s would have wandered the city like us, marvelling at the sights, the sheer bustle of life on and around the river, and the grandeur of the great houses that line its banks ... then gone to eat in some exotic hostelry near the river, or taken in a play or bear-baiting, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves before making their way back to a chamber hired for the night.

Often historical fiction focuses on how different things were in the past. But I prefer to see it from the other side, and consider how similar things were in the past, at least in terms of human experience. I don't entirely agree with L.P. Hartley that, 'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.' For me, one of the most difficult but wonderful things about writing historical fiction is attempting to show the reader how the past might be the country we live in now - if only we could see it.

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