Richard Jefferies in the City of London
Often when I set out for a walk from Spitalfields, my footsteps lead me to the crossroads outside the Bank of England , at the place where Richard Jefferies – a writer whose work has been an enduring inspiration – once stood. Like me, Jefferies also came to the city from the countryside and his response to London was one of awe and fascination. Whenever I feel lost in the metropolis, his writing is always a consolation, granting a liberating perspective upon the all-compassing turmoil of urban life and, in spite of the changes in the city, his observations resonate as powerfully today as they did when he wrote them. This excerpt from The Story of My Heart (1883), the autobiography of his inner life, describes the sight that met Richard Jefferies’ eyes when he stood upon that spot at the crossroads in the City of London.
“There is a place in front of the Royal Exchange where the wide pavement reaches out like a promontory. It is in the shape of a triangle with a rounded apex. A stream of traffic runs on either side, and other streets send their currents down into the open space before it. Like the spokes of a wheel converging streams of human life flow into this agitated pool. Horses and carriages, carts, vans, omnibuses, cabs, every kind of conveyance cross each other’s course in every possible direction.
Twisting in and out by the wheels and under the horses’ heads, working a devious way, men and women of all conditions wind a path over. They fill the interstices between the carriages and blacken the surface, till the vans almost float on human beings. Now the streams slacken, and now they rush again, but never cease, dark waves are always rolling down the incline opposite, waves swell out from the side rivers, all London converges into this focus. There is an indistinguishable noise, it is not clatter, hum, or roar, it is not resolvable, made up of a thousand thousand footsteps, from a thousand hoofs, a thousand wheels, of haste, and shuffle, and quick movements, and ponderous loads, no attention can resolve it into a fixed sound.
Blue carts and yellow omnibuses, varnished carriages and brown vans, green omnibuses and red cabs, pale loads of yellow straw, rusty-red iron clunking on pointless carts, high white wool-packs, grey horses, bay horses, black teams, sunlight sparkling on brass harness, gleaming from carriage panels, jingle, jingle, jingle! An intermixed and intertangled, ceaselessly changing jingle, too, of colour, flecks of colour champed, as it were, like bits in the horses’ teeth, frothed and strewn about, and a surface always of dark-dressed people winding like the curves on fast-flowing water. This is the vortex and whirlpool, the centre of human life today on the earth. Now the tide rises and now it sinks, but the flow of these rivers always continues. Here it seethes and whirls, not for an hour only, but for all present time, hour by hour, day by day, year by year.
All these men and women that pass through are driven on by the push of accumulated circumstances, they cannot stay, they must go, their necks are in the slave’s ring, they are beaten like seaweed against the solid walls of fact. In ancient times, Xerxes, the king of kings, looking down upon his myriads, wept to think that in a hundred years not one of them would be left. Where will be these millions of today in a hundred years? But, further than that, let us ask – Where then will be the sum and outcome of their labour? If they wither away like summer grass, will not at least a result be left which those of a hundred years hence may be the better for? No, not one jot! There will not be any sum or outcome or result of this ceaseless labour and movement, it vanishes in the moment that it is done, and in a hundred years nothing will be there, for nothing is there now. There will be no more sum or result than accumulates from the motion of a revolving cowl on a housetop.
I used to come and stand near the apex of the promontory of pavement which juts out towards the pool of life, I still go there to ponder. London convinced me of my own thought. That thought has always been with me, and always grows wider.”
Richard Jefferies (1848-1887)
Archive photographs copyright © Bishopsgate Institute