Peter Ackroyd

Beauty and its double


During this week in Venice I have been trying to work out why I (and countless writers, painters and composers) love the place so much. Well, there is water of course. I have a thing for cities on water (Stockholm being another favourite city), perhaps because movement invariably slows. Brodsky said  that there is something ‘primordial about traveling on water’. In London we look at the river – some of my favourite aspects of the city are from the Thames – we cross it back and forth over bridges constantly, but we are seldom on it. Although the underground is a necessary means for navigating London, it removes us from the city by taking us below it, and so we miss the engagement with the street and what is happening there in real time (which is why I favour the bus, when I’m not in a hurry!).   

To get back to Brodsky, a long-time resident of Venice, he talks about the way that water unsettles the principle of horizontality, especially at night, when its surface resembles pavement. No matter how solid its substitute – the deck – under your feet, on water you are somewhat more alert than ashore, your faculties are more poised. On water, for instance, you never get absent-minded the way you do in the street: your legs keep you and your wits in constant check, as if you were some kind of compass. Well, perhaps what sharpens your wits while traveling on water is indeed a distant, roundabout echo of the good old chordates. At any rate, your sense of the other on water gets keener, as though heightened by a common as well as a mutual danger. The loss of direction is a psychological category as much as it is a navigational one.


This idea of being unsettled and alert is perhaps another reason I keep returning here. Nowhere else in the world feels so unreal (partly because of the efforts of tourists and those who cater to them to turn the place into Disneyworld); Venice has not been allowed to come into the modern age. Apart from the odd modern Scarpa-designed building, it remains firmly in its past (which is why so many poets have compared it to a graceful dowager). Its past is its glory.

Despite that, so much has been created here in the last hundred-odd years. James’s late novels, Wagner’s Tristan, and poems by Byron and Shelly, Browning, Brodsky, Merrill and Hecht, and of course, Pound’s Cantos. This city attracts those from other places who arrive, often in exile from where they started. It feels a final destination. Peter Ackroyd wrote ‘the perpetual sound of bells is a rehearsal for death’, especially when you think of those who have come here to die (fictional as well as actual).


Which brings me to death, decay, ruin. Venice is frail, crumbling. Water degrades its marble and stone, there is a delicate patina of rust and algae over its surface. James said ‘Venice is the most beautiful sepulchre in the world.’ And so it is. You are nowhere more reminded of demise anywhere else.

So I am here, with a group of poets (some visiting for the first time), exploring and thinking and writing. Trying to find something new to say about this place which has been written about thousands of times. I’ll end on something which has been said before, but for me captures the feeling of coming back, and the mixed sensations of this place – the first stanza of Amy Clampitt’s ‘Venice Revisited’:

Guise and disguise, the mirrorings and masquerades,
brocaded wallowings, ascensions, levitations:
glimmering interiors, beaked motley; the hide-
and-seek of Tintoretto and Carpaccio. From within
walled gardens’ green enclave, a blackbird’s warble —
gypsy non sequitur out of root-cumbered
terra firma, a mainland stepped from
to this shored-up barge, this Bucintoro
of mirage, of artifice. Outside the noon-dim
dining room, the all-these-years-uninterrupted
sloshing of canals; bagged refuse, ungathered
filth; the unfed cats, still waiting.


As much of the country hunkered down against storms that threatened to bring a month of rain in one day, us poets gathered to take a little stroll around London (inspired by the Formerly exhibition at the Poetry Café). Our meeting point was outside Chancery Lane tube, at the dragons marking the boundary of the City. We arrived armed with umbrellas and waterproofs, but at half past ten, our official starting time, the sun crept from between two large grey clouds, and we could see patches of blue sky in the middle distance. As I said to the group, we don’t want the weather to be too cheerful, because our walk would take in the dark and clammy corners of the area that lies between Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury, an area I have always thought of as the Fleet Valley.

Many years ago, around the time I lived in North Mews, a cobbled street running parallel with the Grays Inn Road, I picked up a book at a second-hand stall entitled The Lost Rivers of London by Nicholas Barton. The subtitle of the book was ‘A study of their effects upon London and Londoners, and the effects of London and Londoners upon them’. The subtitle was important, I discovered, as the book wasn’t so much a history of the rivers as an essential guidebook to a hidden underworld. It wasn’t until much later that I came across the phrase genius loci, which describes the spirit of a place which is made manifest through a sense of the histories of its previous inhabitants and its notable events. It explained the odd sensation I had when I lived in that neighbourhood of something I couldn’t quite place, unsettling and sinister. It was during my time in North Mews when I wrote this poem:


It flows beneath my feet, its subterranean banks
unseen. I glide blissfully through my day,
all liquid, like a fish. I can’t understand
what gives this extra lift to my step, as if I’m floating,
and the cars drifting through Clerkenwell Green
are barges carrying sailors home from sea.

But an undercurrent sinks me at Islington:
I sense the bones of the old prison, the plague-dead
dumped straight from their beds, butchers’ scraps
staining the water blood red. The old dark brick
shifts, the city groans in its foundations
and spits me out like a sour grape into the street.

As we made our way through Leather Lane, up Saffron Hill, once the most notorious rookery in London (and the dirtiest and most wretched place that Dickens could think to situate Fagin and his den of thieves), across the Clerkenwell Road, and over Herbal Hill, I think we could all sense the river below us. Peter Ackroyd describes the Fleet as ‘London in essence’, plague-ridden and treacherous, but legendary, the tributary of all that was wild and radical in London. We found a plaque at the bottom of Herbal Hill, undated, but marking the moment the river officially became a sewer.

Outside the Coach and Horses, famed in its day for prize-fights with every conceivable weapon, cockfighting, bull-baiting and bear-baiting (which led to the death of the landlord in 1709), we stood in the middle of the road and peered down into a grate where we could hear the low swoosh of water, the only true vestige of the Fleet, still flowing fast below.

We were standing in the middle of the river, in what was once Hockley-in-the-Hole, an area of street crime and gangs, where women were attacked and stuffed in empty beer barrels and rolled down the hill. We passed under the bridge that carried Rosebery Avenue above our heads, to the inappropriately-named Mount Pleasant, and the huge, ugly Royal Mail Sorting Office that was once the site of Cold Bath Prison (to Coleridge, the site of Hell). We took in the moumental car park, the last undeveloped Second World War bomb site in central London, resplendent with weeds and garbage.

After that, we headed towards Dickens’ House, down Rugby Street (past number 18, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes consummated their relationship), over to pay a visit to Charlie Dutton in his gallery on Princeton Street, through Red Lion Square (past the house where Rossetti first painted Lizzie Siddal, and his new flatmate, William Morris, knocked up a few bits of furniture for their bedsit) and on to the Poetry Café for lunch and time to write some poems. But not before we stopped at the corner of Kingsway and Parker Street, the site of Charles Lamb’s lodgings in 1801. It was from there he wrote to Wordsworth:

Separate from the pleasure of your company, I don’t much care if I never see a mountain in my life. I have passed all my days in London, until I have formed as many and intense local attachments as any of you mountaineers can have done with dead Nature. The lighted shops of the Strand and Fleet Street; the innumerable trades, tradesmen, and customers, coaches, wagons, playhouses; all the bustle and wickedness round about Covent Garden; the very women of the Town; the watchmen, drunken scenes, rattles; life awake, if you awake, at all hours of the night; the impossibility of being dull in Fleet Street; the crowds, the very dirt and mud, the sun shining upon houses and pavements, the print shops, the old bookstalls, parsons cheapening books, coffee-houses, steams of soups from kitchens, the pantomimes - London itself a pantomime and a masquerade - all these things work themselves into my mind, and feed me, without a power of satiating me. The wonder of these sights impels me into night-walks about her crowded streets, and I often shed tears in the motley Strand from fullness of joy at so much life.

The photographs were taken by Vici MacDonald, my collaborator on the Formerly project. The exhibition continues at the Poetry Café through August. The book can be ordered here: