Is It Possible To Step Back In Time?
It’s all about opening a window to the past.
As cities change they shed their pasts. This was never London’s problem because past and present have always existed together in an ever-changing collision of styles and tastes. One senses that this is now coming to an end as international corporate architecture flattens life from the metropolis.
Dennis Severs (he of the celebrated house in Folgate Street) once told me that if he could get a person to open a window to the past they would understand for a moment how history was shaped. I had that with him on one foggy night overlooking the bell tower of the Wren church in Spitalfields when the present melted away to reveal a different time.
It also happened again on the night of the premiere for the film ‘Wilde’, which I had worked on. Jude Law (Bosie), Stephen Fry (Oscar) and I were walking between Leicester Square and the Strand in period clothes with green carnations in our buttonholes, on our way to the Savoy. I looked back at them for a moment and it felt as if I was seeing the pair strolling through the misted night by the river over a century earlier.
Last night it happened again.
I was walking underneath Blackfriars Bridge. On one corner was a man selling roasted chestnuts – on the other was a young student played the cello. St Paul’s Cathedral shone across the high dark tide.
To my right, guests were arriving at a party being held in one of London’s most famous houses – over the last 450 years its residents watched ferrymen carry Londoners to and from Shakespeare’s Globe. They saw the Great Fire, passed heads on poles at London Bridge, saw the lanes of London’s marshy South Bank give way to wharves, workshops and tenements. There’s a book about the house, ‘The House By The Thames and the People Who Lived There’ by Gillian Tindall.
I was heading to the Globe’s Jacobean Theatre, lit entirely by candlelight, to sit on a narrow bench and watch a three hour long Jacobean play, which sounds like a horrible trial but wasn’t at all – in fact the time flew past. The play, ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle’ (a euphemism for syphilis) was a comedy for children by Francis Beaumont, first performed in 1607. It’s the first parody in English, and predates ‘Don Quixote’, which is similar in structure.
The first performance took place in a house known for biting satire and sexual double entendre right around this very spot in Blackfriars.
In the play two audience members, a grocer and his wife (Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn) start heckling the actors, then insinuate their gormless son Rafe into the action, causing chaos. Seated in the Pit meant being dragged into the action. Ms McLynn offered me grapes and Rafe spat his teeth out all over us after being punched in the face. It was a raucous, bawdy, hilarious play as Rafe fought a ten-foot bloodstained barber and seduced a bearded harem princess.
It’s the first play to break the fourth wall to allow a commentary on the action, and even with all the quests and fights and deaths and slapstick, including crashing through the roof, it’s a long night, but at the end of the play there’s an extraordinary petal-strewn speech about youth and London that nearly moved me to tears. At this point the sense of the present falling away returned and lasted for several hours.
The present day was restored upon arriving on Blackfriars station, London’s only station on a bridge, which has spectacular views of Tower Bridge and the Thames. Are there any places where the past has revealed itself to you? I’d love to hear about them.