Sunday, March 25, 2012
Newell Street, London
The wisdom of Solomon
In the dappled green shade of the churchyard of St Anne’s, Limehouse (see previous post) is a 9-foot-high stone pyramid. It seems to mark no grave, has no obvious purpose, and stands there, looking mysterious. In 19th-century engravings it is shown mounted on a square plinth but now stands on the ground. On one face is the inscription, ‘The wisdom of Solomon’. The pyramid is part of a group of arcane symbols that seem to cluster around Hawksmoor’s churches – pyramids, obelisks, and other borrowings from ancient civilizations – that set them apart and contribute to the alien character of these massive buildings. The best guess about the surprising presence of this particular pyramid is that it was intended to top one of the corners of the church. No one knows for sure.
Such things arouse the interest of psychogeographers, those writers who have examined the lives of places and their effects on people’s psyches. Mappers of hidden cultural contours; those who exhume forgotten histories or find alignments between the past and the present; soakers in atmosphere; reclaimers of evocative desolation and pleasing decay.
Iain Sinclair, for example. A whole section of Sinclair’s book Lud Heat (part poetry, part prose, ‘a writing’ as that other great London visionary, David Jones, would have called it) concerns Hawksmoor’s churches. It includes a map with lines that join their sites, creating triangles and pentagrams and alignments with other highly significant sites and buildings such as William Blake’s house in Lambeth and Cleopatra’s Needle. Sinclair mines all kinds of allusions, myths, and significances from these alignments, connections that enable him to incorporate into his text references to such writers as Blake, Pepys, and Sir Thomas Browne, parallels with myths from ancient Egypt and ancient Britain, and sinister histories ranging from the plague to the murders committed by Jack the Ripper.
Who knows how significant all this is? It’s possible to make all sorts of sites connect on a map, especially if the scale of the map is small and the lines joining the points are thick, as critics of ley-line hunters have pointed out. But I’m not looking for literal truth or Ordnance Survey precision in the alignments between pyramids, obelisks, and plague pits. What is more important is that Sinclair has built absorbing and sometimes brilliant writing out of this hoard of images and myths.
And Sinclair nails Hawksmoor’s style. He says of the churches: ‘Certain features are in common: extravagant design, massive, almost slave-built, strength – not democratic. A strength that is not connected to notions of “craftsmanship” or “elegance”. They are not easy on the eye, and do not enforce images of grace. Metaphors inflate at their own risk. The mind is not led upwards to any starry nest.’ Sometimes Sinclair could almost be describing his own writing here, prose that has a strangeness and a solidity that is true to Hawksmoor’s buildings, large, ponderous, and weird as they are. Words that are arranged in a modern, collage-like fashion, and yet draw on ideas that have been around for as long as the pyramids of Egypt.