Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Dancing with the Moonlit Knight - Selling England

"Paper late", cried a voice in the crowd.

It's a cold early evening in the winter of 1987-8. At Baker Street Station, the crowds are transferring between lines, or pouring in out of the cold to catch the Met line out to Betjeman's dreaming suburbs - one day to be Blur's "leafy Nowhere". In the bustle and haze, where the cold of the outside hits the warmth and static of the station, an old guy in a flat cap, voice worn to a bullfrog croak, issues the same cry he has uttered for - apparently - ever.

" Piperlight

The whole chant, as low as a Russian bass singer with a bad cold. But "Standard" a full major fifth below "Paper Late". In this busy corner of the great city, with the rumble of Marylebone Road and Baker Street, the crunch and whoosh and squeal of the trains - even over the remorseless sax solo (not by Bob Holness) that haunts your head - still the cry of the old newspaper seller resounds across the foyer.

This is London. How long has the paper-seller been there? Any period of time between 12 months and 60 years would be equally ancient, in the ears and minds of the souls that flit between the West End and the Chiltern fringes of London.

John Lewis in Oxford Street took a million quid in a day that winter. The news ran through the store like an electric current. To the other stores on that "Occidental Bazaar" as Elvis Costello will soon call it, selling stuff is routine business. Shareholders to satisfy. Wages to pay. Only the "Partnership" turn it into a moral imperative. Almost a social duty. The rest have to put pretty girls in pretty frocks to sell their stuff - convince us that what fits a size-8 post-adolescent will make a 50-year-old gran look passable. It's a trick. But selling things isn't so bad in itself - the Good Wife of the Proverbs is a pretty decent merchant, long before the Earl of Oxford decided that what his patch of boring West London farmland really needed was a Virgin Megastore and Selfridges.

Long before John Lewis - long before Peter Gabriel sang his tricksy opening lyrics to this most inventive and punning of albums - balancing on a golden thread between satire and folk-tale; kitchen-sink romance and Cockernee dust-up - this England (and this London, its flywheel, black hole, evil genius and epitome) rolled forwards on wheels of commerce. It's what it does.

Jump forward to 2016. Today the gangs have changed - more diverse than those gentlemen of the East End who "only picked on their own" (they didn't), who have since died in clean shirts in Bedfordshire or Essex.  Today's battles are often smaller-scale than the expanse of Epping Forest - sometimes a scrap over just a postcode. Yet sometimes part of a web from Hackney to Somalia or Syria.

And London's commerce has moved on too - even from that winter's night in the 80s, and from Genesis's satire on commerce - let alone from those postcard days of street cries and costers, the bakers of Pudding Lane and the fishmongers of Friday Street - their Lenten theme remembered only in the name. Do you remember the Knights of the Green Shield? Ah those books of stamps of yore. Fore-runners to the loyalty cards with which total fealty would be (if the supermarkets had their way) enforced. The sages of Dunnhumby - who, let's face it, sound like a bunch of gnomes - glean their nuggets of gold from the straw of Big Data. They're dissecting England by the pound. They know if you've been good or bad. They know when the bloating of Christmas over-indulgence gives way to the bio-yoghurts of Tweenmass and then into Dryanuary. They know if you have decided you're gluten- or lactose- intolerant. Let's face it - it's only the fear that they will give themselves away that stops them having your shopping ready for you when your Bluetooth connection announces you're pulling into the car park. 

Beneath the mucky streets of London, the River Fleet snakes. Polluted by early-modern butchers. Host to 18th century parties, held by pox-scarred courtesans in the fields beyond the walls. Canalled by Wren and imprisoned by Bazalgette. The Victorian of that name took the filth of London out beyond the Isle of Dogs. His 21st century descendant broadcast a fair amount of filth across England. The Fleet murmurs under the City - remembering the days of pomp, the time of the Romans. Like the last of Old England's energy, the last dribble, in times of flood, pours out from a sewer under Blackfriar's Bridge. A journey that started among the sands of Hampstead Heath - round Parliament Hill, once loved of Druids - past Primrose Hill, once loved of Blur. Through the cress-softened meadows of Kentish Town it once poured, bringing iron-rich health and beauty to smoke-crazed clerks on the Farringdon Road - desperate for fun, buns, beer and an inviting look from a professionally-friendly shady lady. And filled with dirt and mud, exhausted, like the commercial activity left to a City trader after thirty years in the braces, it drips out into its greater relative - the river that London still recognises, encircles, celebrates and yet - so often - turns its back on.
The note he left was signed "Old Father Thames". It seems he's drowned.
Selling England by the Pound.

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