to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, from a ditch to a drain.’ I hear about the many local wells that once fed into the important but also notorious and noxious river — including the Clerks Well, which gave the area its name. The voice reads me its owner’s own poem on the subject of the ancient river, and uses that poem to introduce the term genius loci or, as Yeats described it ‘spirit of place, through which landscape can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have played out against them.’
While that idea is flowing through me, I stop off at the Coach and Horses for some liquid refreshment, in the hope that it might reach the parts of my imagination other strategies haven’t reached. As I slurp my fizzy mineral water (honest), and feel it descend through my pipes, I feel strangely connected to the River Fleet, which, the Doctor’s voice informs me, can still be heard flowing at the bottom of a very deep drain beneath a round grating in the middle of the street right here next to the pub. I look at the grating and consider throwing myself to the ground and putting my ear to it, but there are other customers at the outdoor tables. I remember reading a piece about the over-eager young Rilke walking the streets in contemplation of an iris held before him and decline to make a poetic spectacle of myself. Perhaps I should have. Still no poem — not even a scrap or a fragment of one.
Location 7 is in Warner Street, under the Roseberry Avenue overpass, once the river valley and an area of great poverty and depravity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the Mohocks, a local terror gang, are said to have put women in beer barrels and rolled them down the banks of the Fleet at Snow Hill, just for fun. At this point, Dr Y introduces the idea of ‘debatable zones’, the places in a city that, in the words of the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, from their book Edgelands, often contain ‘decay and stasis, but could also be dynamic and deeply mysterious.’
One of these debatable zones is surely the great rough crater of the Royal Mail car park in Farringdon, which sits at the true level of the river valley, and which is pointed out to me on my way to the next location. It is one of the last undeveloped World War Two bomb sites in central London, and I finally begin to feel the stirrings of thought, emotion and sound that might become a poem.
There is something deeply touching about the sight of this hole, created by hatred and destruction, now being used to facilitate human endeavour, relationships and communication. From my standpoint at a wire fence, I can see heaps of soil, rubble, and broken brick walls around a great bowl in the earth, and the cars and vans of Royal Mail workers parked there, calm as cattle, shining in the midday sun.
Location 8 is Doughty Street, which once provided homes for Dickens, at number 48, and Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, at number 58. But the voice urges me to turn away from the literary greats and their houses and look instead at the trees. I listen to a quote about the common London plane tree from Richard Mabey’s book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’:
‘Its popularity in urban and industrial areas is probably due to its extreme hardiness and tolerance of poor soils and polluted air. It’s a clean tree too, having shiny leaves which are quickly washed free of soot by rain, and sloughing off its grimy bark at intervals to leave fresh fawn layers underneath.’
I need no invitation from Dr Y to consider ‘what metaphorical values we can give to a tree like the London plane’. I’m already there, relating the plane’s ability to survive and regenerate itself to the hardiness and resolution of the typical Londoner of my imagination, resolutely withstanding terrorist attacks and the Blitz.