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Snowfall At Bow Cemetery

December 11, 2017
by the gentle author

On Sunday morning, a hush was cast upon the East End as the first snowfall of winter came down. Many cancelled their plans for going out, consequently the traffic thinned and the pavements emptied as the falling snow took possession of the territory. Awaking and looking from my bedroom window, the dark boughs of the great yew tree in the back yard were weighed down with a heavy covering of white – a bucolic wintry vision filling my gaze, as if the house had been transported in the night and I had woken high in the mountains.

Even as I opened my eyes, I knew I wanted to go to Bow Cemetery, where I paid a visit to admire the precocious spring bulbs last spring. The appealing irony is that this vast garden of death has become the largest preserve of wildlife in East London. Created once the small parish churchyards filled up, it is where those numberless thousands who made the East End in the nineteenth century are buried. On the Western side of the cemetery, near the main entrance, are fancy tombs and grand monuments but, as you walk East, they diminish and become more uniformly modest until, at the remotest extremity, there are only tiny stones. At first, I thought these were for children when, in fact, they were simply the cheapest option. Yet even these represent an aggrandisement, beyond the majority of those who were buried here in unmarked communal graves.

My spirits lifted to leave the icy mess of the streets and enter the quiet of the cemetery where since 1966, a forest has been permitted to grow. A freezing mist hung beneath the high woodland canopy, and the covering of white served to emphasise the rich green and golden lichen hues of the stones, and subtle brown tones of the tree trunks ascending from among the graves. As on my previous visits, there were few visitors here and I quickly lost myself in the network of narrow paths, letting the trees surround me in the areas where no human footprint had yet been made.

Crows called to each other and woodpeckers hammered away high in the tree tops, their sounds echoing in the still air. Thrushes searched for grubs under leaves in the rare patches of uncovered earth beneath stands of holly, and a young fox came by – standing out as a vivid rusty brown against the pale snow – slinking along self-conscious of his exposure. The spring bulbs that I saw last year in flower at this time were evidenced only by sparse green spears, protruding from snow criss-crossed by animal and bird tracks.

It was a very different place from the lush undergrowth of high summer and another place again from the crocus-spangled garden of spring, yet I always discover peace and solitude here – a rare commodity in the East End – and, even in this bleakest season, there was life.

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Harold Burdekin’s London Nights

December 10, 2017
by the gentle author

At this time of year, I close the curtains at three o’clock and settle down beside the fire to contemplate Harold Burdekin’s nocturnal photography of London, as a celebration of darkness and the city, from the comfort of my old armchair

East End Riverside

As you will have realised by now, I am a night bird. In the mornings, I stumble around in a bleary-eyed stupor of incomprehension and in the afternoons I wince at the sun. But as darkness falls my brain begins to focus and, by the time others are heading to their beds, then I am growing alert and settling down to write.

Once I used to go on night rambles – to the railway stations to watch them loading the mail, to the markets to gawp at the hullabaloo and to Fleet St to see the newspaper trucks rolling out with the early editions. These days, such nocturnal excursions are rare unless for the sake of writing a story, yet I still feel the magnetic pull of the dark city streets beckoning, and so it was with a deep pleasure of recognition that I first gazed upon this magnificent series of inky photogravures of ”London Night” by Harold Burdekin from 1934 in the Bishopsgate Library.

For many years, it was a subject of wonder for me – as I lay awake in the small hours – to puzzle over the notion of whether the colours which the eye perceives in the night might be rendered in paint. This mystery was resolved when I saw Rembrandt’s “Rest on the Flight into Egypt” in the National Gallery of Ireland, perhaps the finest nightscape in Western art.

Almost from the beginning of the medium, night became a subject for photography with John Adams Whipple taking a daguerrotype of the moon through a telescope in 1839, but it was not until the invention of the dry plate negative process in the eighteen eighties that night photography really became possible. Alfred Stieglitz was the first to attempt this in New York in the eighteen nineties, producing atmospheric nocturnal scenes of the city streets under snow.

In Europe, night photography as an idiom in its own right begins with George Brassaï who depicted the sleazy after-hours life of the Paris streets, publishing “Paris de Nuit” in 1932. These pictures influenced British photographers Harold Burdekin and Bill Brandt, creating “London Night” in 1934 and “A Night in London” in 1938, respectively. Harold Burdekin’s work is almost unknown today, though his total eclipse by Bill Brandt may in part be explained by the fact that Burdekin was killed by a flying bomb in Reigate in 1944 and never survived to contribute to the post-war movement in photography.

More painterly and romantic than Brandt, Burdekin’s nightscapes propose an irresistibly soulful vision of the mythic city enfolded within an eternal indigo night. How I long to wander into the frame and lose myself in these ravishing blue nocturnes.

Black Raven Alley, Upper Thames St

Street Corner

Temple Gardens

London Docks

From Villiers St

General Post Office, King Edward St

Leicester Sq

Middle Temple Hall

Regent St

St Helen’s Place, Bishopsgate

George St, Strand

St Botolph’s and the City

St Bartholomew’s Hospital, Smithfield

Images courtesy Bishopsgate Institute

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The Nights of Old London

On Christmas Night in the City

Night at the Brick Lane Beigel Bakery

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Night in the Bakery at St John

On the Rounds With The Spitalfields Milkman

The Tragical Death Of An Apple Pie

December 9, 2017
by the gentle author

With the temperatures plunging below zero, my thoughts turn towards hot apple pie and so I take this opportunity to present The Tragical Death of an Apple Pie, an alphabet rhyme first published in 1671, in a version produced by Jemmy Catnach in the eighteen-twenties.

Poet, compositor and publisher, Catnach moved to London from Newcastle in 1812 and set up Seven Dials Press in Monmouth Court, producing more than four thousand chapbooks and broadsides in the next quarter century. Anointed as the high priest of street literature and eager to feed a seemingly-endless appetite for cheap printed novelties in the capital, Catnach put forth a multifarious list of titles, from lurid crime and political satire to juvenile rhymes and comic ballads, priced famously at a halfpenny or a ‘farden.’

A An Apple Pie

B Bit it

C Cut it

D Dealt it

E Did eat it

F Fought for it

G Got it

H Had it

J Join’d for it

K Kept it

L Long’d for it

M Mourned for it

N Nodded at it

O Open’d it

P Peeped into it

Q Quartered it

R Ran for it

S Stole it

T Took it

V View’d it

W Wanted it

XYZ and & all wished for a piece in hand

Dame Dumpling who made the Apple Pie

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Moyra Peralta’s Worldly Goods

December 8, 2017
by the gentle author

“These are all my worldly goods,” said Darren when he spread out these modest items to show Photographer Moyra Peralta in 1997. Moyra asked those she had befriended who lived upon the street to permit her to photograph the contents of their pockets and these pictures were the result.

Darren (Waterloo) - Dog, dog leads, keys on key-ring, penknife, cigarettes, lighter, matches, loose change, shoppers’ points card, religious medals on a string, prayer printed on a metal plate, photo of a dog, paperclip, safety pins, nine packets of sugar, paper serviette, personal papers, pain-killers, emery board and several plastic change bags.

Richard (Holborn) – Busking spoons (for `ham and egg-ing’, ie begging), diary, passport, one roll-up , matches, tobacco, cigarette papers, allowance book, medical prescription, Department of Social Security letter, penknife, photograph, paper tissues, and twenty-one pence.

Michael (Covent Garden) – Social Security book, moneybag, a pair of spectacles with case, a religious picture and prayer, a crucifix and chain, a five pound note, London Underground travel ticket, loose change, a US coin, two lighters, a pencil, comb, a chewing gum, a Medilink card and church postcards.

Chris, Malcolm & Jimmy (Trafalgar Sq) –  Personal stereo, lighters, cigarettes, vitamin tablets, legal and medical papers,
 a photograph of Jack Nicholson, a cartoon drawing, copper coins, a match, a wristband and a lucky sprig of heather.

Sean (Covent Garden) – A Begging placard, a peeled orange, money tin, loose change, a paper hankie, cashew nuts, a pair of socks, an 
origami flower, a pocket dictionary, a postcard, a religious picture, a whistle, shoelaces, a plaster, a broken pencil and an Irish coin.

Rory – Virgin Atlantic docket, address book, a miniature elephant mascot, a personal stereo, two paperbacks, 
`british passport, an inhaler, a brush, two cigarette lighters, a matchbook, a pen, a hammer (for breaking into squats) and a torch (belonging to a friend).

Johnnie (Holborn) – A hairbrush, reading glasses, cigarette papers, tobacco, a lighter, a pair of scissors, a razor, a toothbrush, a toothpaste, vitamin capsules, a wallet, photographs, an envelope with more photographs, batteries, coins, a pen, a paperback and cream bath lotion.

Simon (Holborn) – A tobacco tin, some dog-ends, matches, a candle stub, loose change, paper towels, dog biscuits and bone, a collar and lead, a necklace, combs, a prescription, a notebook,  a paperback, two photos, stamps, a copy of In & Around Covent Garden magazine, a cassette, a button, an envelope, a pencil, a bullet,  a plastic knife and fork, and three tubes of glue.

Ray (Strand) – a wallet, a notebook, tissues, an address book, a news cutting, an Outreach contact card, phone cards, dice, a stamp, loose change, combs, a pair of spectacles, a watch, a pen, a playing card, a cigar stub, a pen cap, bottle of mouthwash, matches, buttons, shaving cream, soap, a piece of string, a needle, thread, a safety razor in a plastic case, throat sweets, scissors, antiseptic cream, wire and wire springs and a paperback.

Tommy (Holborn Station) – Copies of The Big Issue, a Vendor’s Identity Card, a spectacle case, cigarettes, peppermints, nail-clippers and a wristwatch.

Tony & Sandy -  Rolling tobacco, a lighter, cigarette papers, painkillers, a plaster and a comb.

Richard displays his worldly goods in Holborn.

Photographs copyright © Moyra Peralta

Signed copies of ‘NEARLY INVISIBLE,’ including these photographs and more by Moyra Peralta plus writing by John Berger & Alan Bennett, are available for free directly from Moyra for just £2 postage. Email moyra.peralta@zen.co.uk to get your copy.

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Winter Light In Spitalfields

December 7, 2017
by the gentle author

The inexorable descent into the winter darkness is upon us, even if just two weeks from now we shall reach the equinox and days will start to lengthen. At this season, I am more aware of light than at any other – especially when the city languishes under an unremitting blanket of low cloud, filtering the daylight into a grey haze that casts no shadow.

Yet on some recent mornings I have woken to sunlight and it always lifts my spirits to walk out through the streets under a clear sky. On such days, the low-angled sunshine and its attendant deep shadow conjures an exhilarating drama.

In these particular conditions of light, walking from Brick Lane down Fournier St is like advancing through a cave towards the light, refracting around the vast sombre block of Christ Church that guards the entrance. The street runs from east to west and, as the sun declines, its rays enter through the churchyard gates next to Rectory illuminating the houses opposite and simultaneously passing between the pillars at the front of the church to deliver light at the western end where it meets Commercial St.

For a spell, the shadows of the stone balls upon the pillars at the churchyard gate fall upon the houses on the other side of the street and then the rectangle of light, admitted between the church and the Rectory, narrows from the width of a house to single line before it fades out. At the junction with Commercial St, the low-angled sun directed through the pillars in the portico of Christ Church casts tall parallel bars of light and shade that travel down Fournier St from the Ten Bells as far as number seven, reflecting off the window panes to to create a fleeting pattern like stars within the gloom of the old church wall.

As you can see from these photographs, I captured these transient effects of light with my camera to share with you as a keepsake of winter sunshine, for consolation when those clouds descend again.

The last ray

The shadow of the cornice of Christ Church upon the Rectory

The shadow of the pillars of Christ Church upon Fournier St

Windows in Fournier St reflecting upon the church wall

In Princelet St

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