Scenes of London – Then and Now
8th December 2021
Illustrated books about London generally leave me as cold as a slab of Portland stone. If I see any more neatly rendered pen and ink illustrations of the Houses of Parliament I will be rolling barrels of gunpower up the Blackstock Road to properly finish the 1605 plot - the House of Lords abolished at last.
“London Prints and Drawings before 1800” (Bernard Nurse, London Topographical Society, 2017) has its fair share of elegant facades but unearths more indelicate material too. “Bloody News from Islington” a printed broadsheet (think 17th century News of the World), details how “a Woman’s Brains were knockt out with her own Pattin (clogs)”, a crime of passion committed by the husband, one George Allen, who having embarked on an affair with the house maid came to regard his wife as a nuisance. Allen was later apprehended and then hung close to the scene of the crime at Ring Cross. Ring Cross is the junction of Hornsey Road and Holloway Road and not to be confused with Kings Cross.
The book shows a 1675 etching of a grim scene, where the body is left hanging on public display (then normal practice), and George has attracted quite a crowd and rubber-necking horse-drawn carriages. In contrast, the view north up Holloway Road is of bucolic, unrelenting fields and orchards. The only building is (perhaps) the Archway Tavern, comfortably nestled in the Highgate foothills.
Looking at that same space today, it feels like George’s malevolent spirit has transmuted the area into a slice of hell. Angry traffic stuck on endless red lights, desperate to be anywhere other than Ring Cross. Towering canyons of polytechnic campus buildings (currently passing themselves off as university status due to an administrative error), a strange mixture of Brutalism, Post- Modernism and Prince-Charles-non-descript trap and intensify noxious vehicle fumes and maddening decibel levels are enough to send anyone into a murderous rage. Infestations of students, scurrying around - conned into thinking they are on a path to academic perfection – and perhaps sensing the futility of their plight, escape into the subterranean safety of the Piccadilly line via Holloway Road station.
Massive articulated lorries, shipping container loads of stinking rubbish from Islington Recycling Centre purgatory, slowly inch closer to the inevitability of Hell’s Inferno - the Enfield Incinerator.
Perhaps, like Dante and his Inferno, we all need to travel through the nine circles of North London Hell (bus routes 43, 263 and 271) and must overcome architectural sins, intense noise and pollution to eventually find redemption in the sunny pasturelands of Upper Holloway.
- Richard S, Volunteer