Tuesday, 27 October 2009

A sketch of a river

My name is Sam Redlark. I am a carrier of the LonB gene which enables me to perceive parts of London that are undetectable to the majority of people. This blog is an account of the Capital as I experience it. I hope that my writing here will encourage those who find themselves in London, whether it is as a visitor, or as a resident, to seek a deeper appreciation of their surroundings. You don’t need to be a LonB carrier to experience the best of the city. All you need to do is open your senses to what is around you.

A sketch of a river...

On Fenchurch Street, Emma Priestnell and I are standing in the middle of what might very well be a dried-up river bed. Around us the early morning flow of commuters from the nearby railway station empties itself into the city, blending seamlessly into the current of office-bound foot traffic. To our right a procession of slow moving cars and buses crawls in fits and starts towards a set of traffic lights. A black taxi rounds a bend and sweeps past us, drawing gracefully up to the curb to drop-off a fare.

For a fractious hour-and-a-half we have been attempting to agree on the course of The Langbourne - the most romanticised and elusive of the Capital’s lost rivers.  Now, with the city building momentum in readiness for the working day ahead, we find ourselves run aground on the corner of Mark Lane, struggling to orientate an unsatisfactorily small copy of the London A-Z with an A2-sized reproduction of a map that we recently obtained from the British Library. This is made all the more difficult by the jostling crowd who brush roughly past, threatening to knock these objects out of our hands.

John Stow, the 16th century chronicler of London, mentions the Langbourne as flowing at least in part along Lombard Street. Others imbued with a greater sense of scepticism declare that if these apocryphal waters existed at all, they most likely formed an open sewer that followed the layout of the streets and was certainly manmade in origin.

Adding to the mystery are numerous well-thumbed accounts that give fleeting mention of the river. The most famous of these is a passage that appears in a religious pamphlet that was circulated around the East end of London in the year 1800. The text takes a moralising, puritanical tone, warning of “uncovnetionale baptisms” in what are referred to as “the blasphemouse wateres of the Langbourne.”

It is this and other anecdotes which over the years have added to the current of Langbourne-related speculation among the Capital’s historians and psychogeographers. My friend Charlotte disparagingly refers to the latter “as men of a certain age playing at being Victorian occultists”. When I told her that I intended to write about The Langbourne in this blog, her response was to remark that I wouldn’t get half so dewy-eyed about London’s lost rivers if they were all still flowing above ground.

I suppose that she is right. There is something both attractive and melancholy about things that have become so lost that they threaten to fade altogether from the pages of history and sink into the realms of myth. Although, in reality, the Langbourne is not lost at all, but simply in a state of hibernation awaiting a set of circumstances that will bring it surging back to life:

In 1921 a young man by the name of Christopher Leck researched the river in meticulous detail. Leck had returned from the Battle of the Somme missing his right leg and subsequently found employment with the Islington Spur Historical Society. He later died of TB , aged just 27. When the society disbanded shortly after, his work, which had been largely ignored during his lifetime, was soon forgotten and has only recently been rediscovered.

Leck correctly identified the Langbourne as an airborne river, having observed similar phenomena while serving in France during the First World War. These strange bodies of water owe their existence to a symbiotic relationship that exists between unusual atmospheric conditions, brought about in part by underlying physical geography, and certain species of plant. In Northern Europe the most common sources of airborne rivers are Storm Elms - who exhibit a supernatural hold over weather patterns.

In London’s distant past it would have been possible to chart the course of the Langbourne by plotting the locations of Storm Elms on a map of the city, while taking into account topographical factors such as gradient and obstacles that might impede the flow of running water. These giant trees, now extinct from the British Isles, eject great clouds of pollen directly upwards. The expulsions reach the lower atmosphere where they seeds clouds, causing rain to fall in the vicinity of the tree. By some unknown mechanism Storm Elms are able to encourage lightening to strike them. They conduct these massive jolts of electricity harmlessly into the ground, benefiting from the nitrates that such discharges add to the soil.

The Langbourne in its pomp would have enjoyed a sporadic, seasonal flow, as a series of broken lines rather than a continuous body of water. As Leck describes it: “We must envisage this most peculiar of London’s rivers as a string of puddles which, at certain times in the spring, might combine with one another to form a modest, short-lived torrent.”

The source of the river was probably a great elm that once stood in what is now Duckhead Lane in Clerkenwell. This mighty tree was frequently used as a gallows until the persistent, increasingly heavy rain that fell over the area conspired with the underlying London clay to form a natural moat in the depression around the trunk, making hanging an impractical form of execution. This did nothing to abate the local population’s thirst for capital punishment. Thereafter criminals who had been sentenced to death could expect to have their heads forcibly held under the water that surrounded the tree until they drowned.

Later this body of water came to be known as Redeemers Pond, after Roland Holloway – then the Bishop of London - granted his blessing upon it so that criminals might be baptised and find forgiveness in the eyes of the lord as they were executed. There is a small piece of stained glass in the raised crypt of the nearby Church of Saint Marius depicting this scene.

Branching out from the founding elm were a chain of similar trees that stretched all the way to Wapping. Over the centuries this wooden river has been whittled away. The last of the Storm Elms were killed off by Dutch Elm disease in the 1970s. It seems that while London’s other minor rivers were disappearing underground, where they remain hidden to this day, the Langbourne quietly ascended into the heavens. 

A few hours after our fraught, early-morning mapping attempt on the corner of Mark Lane, Emma and I have moved a short distance east to Wapping, where a roughly-laid square of black tarmac forms an incongruous patch over a small section of the paving. This botched repair job marks the location of the last storm elm in London. A victim of Dutch Elm disease, it was felled in 1981. The base of the trunk was initially left in situ because of concerns that removing it might damage surrounding water pipes. It eventually became known Scab’s Stump after the trade union disputes of1986, when striking print workers etched the names anyone of who crossed the picket lines into the wood.

The stump was removed in April 1987 a couple of months after the strikes ended. A report that appeared in The Guardian newspaper around this time mentions it being loaded into the back of a police van and taken away.

“It’s a shame that no one ever thought to count the rings,” says Emma as we throw ourselves into the pointless task of measuring the dimensions of the tarmac.

In the opalescent sky above our heads a marbled vein of grey cloud, sketches-out the course of a long dead river. 

NEXT... The go anywhere river

Monday, 12 October 2009

A Postcard from London B...


A postcard from London B...
When I was six years old my grandparents took me to London on the train. My memories of that day survive as a few snapshot mental images, each one tied to a strong emotional impression:
I recall my delight as I was lifted onto the back of a camel in London Zoo; My insistence that the occasional empty cages and enclosures, that are an anomalous feature of any menagerie, contained mysterious, far-fetched animals that were apparently invisible to my grandparents and the other visitors.
Later in Parliament Square I was allowed to wander a few feet away so that, isolated on an expanse of grass, I felt my smallness in comparison to the surrounding buildings. I was entranced by a low humming sound that seemed to emanate from the Palace of Westminster, and which was only drowned out by the weighty hourly chimes of Big Ben. The clock tower looked like it had been warped in a strong heat haze – it’s perpetually shape-shifting architecture undergoing subtle changes in colour, as if it was sculpted from sticks of different coloured of plasticine that were in the process of blending together.
That evening on the Thames embankment, in the shadow of one of the great sphinxes that flank Cleopatra’s needle, I was captivated by the patchwork bark of the London Plane trees: An autumnal collage of vibrant, softly glowing oranges, reds and golds, diffusing into the chill evening air of late spring.  

*   *  *

The following year I returned to London, this time in the company of my parents. On the underground train from Tower Hill I was frightened out of my wits by a tarantula-sized spider, the colour of dead wood, which had taken up a stationary vigil in the roof of the carriage. As the train pulled away from the platform, my father, who apparently could not see the spider, attempted to manhandle me into one of the seats directly underneath it. I fought back, biting his hand and accidentally kicking one of the seated passengers in the shin. As I was coerced into a sobbed apology, I saw through a blur of tears a smouldering cloud of hellish black and red mist that seemed to be rising from the bodies of some of the other weekend commuters. The only kind face was that of an elderly woman who briefly glanced up from her knitting and fixed me with an expression of infinite sympathy.

We disembarked from the train at the next stop. My angry parents dragged me up the seemingly endless wooden escalator with my younger brother in tow. Outside in the street I continued to become more and more hysterical. A passing policeman tried and failed to calm me down. By this time I was raving about one of the buildings opposite being on fire. An ambulance was summoned and I was taken to Saint Milton’s Hospital in Clerkenwell. There, the on-call paediatrician who, looking back now strikes me as being very young and probably not long in the profession, reluctantly diagnosed a full-blown psychotic episode. I was sedated and moved on to a ward where I was kept overnight for observation. My father returned home with my brother.

In the days that followed, my parents expressed their concern and disapproval of my behaviour with an artificial silence that singled me out and left me stewing in my own guilt. The following Saturday at dinner I couldn’t finish my mashed potatoes and sat glumly at the table watching the gravy congealing in puddles, while I waited to be excused. My mother busied herself about the kitchen, studiously ignoring my presence, as if daring me to get down of my on accord. I had started to suffer from nightmares and habitually wet the bed.

Eventually I was taken to our local GP – Dr Shapiro. He referred me to a child psychologist who, in turn, sent me to the hospital for a series of tests. A fortnight later I returned with my parents to the doctor’s surgery where he informed them that I had been diagnosed positive for the LonB gene.

I have a vague recollection of this meeting; mainly of being bored out of my mind, sitting on a plastic chair in the corner of Dr Shapiro’s office, gazing down at my feet as my legs swang arrhythmically back and forth, while he and my parents discussed me as if I wasn’t there. Their conversation would have gone completely over my head. I expect he would have explained to them that LonB is a little understood condition that apparently grants its hosts the ability to see, hear, smell, touch, and taste things that are undetectable to the normal person. He would have mentioned that the effect of the gene appears to be geographically localised; that those affected experience perceptual discrepancies within a clearly-defined area of London and nowhere else in the world. He would have told them that medication would deaden the effect but that the best course of action would be to keep me well away from the Capital.

The rest of my family were tested for the presence of the gene and my mother and my younger brother were found to have it in its flattened, recessive state. Around this time my maternal grandfather privately confided in my parents that he too was a LonB carrier and had been plagued by the same kind of hallucinations that I had experienced. He explained that he had kept his condition a secret out of a fear that he would lose his senior position at the oil company where he worked if it were to become public knowledge. His caution was prudent as, up until a decade ago, the presence of LonB was treated as an indicator of schizoid tendencies. Carriers were regarded as unstable, unreliable and were legally barred from practicing certain trades within London.  
My parents decided against medication and instead enforced a ban on me ever visiting the Captial, which, as I grew older, made me want to go there even more. When at the age of 18, I announced that I had that turned down an offer of a degree course from York University and instead intended to carry on my higher education in London, there was an almighty family argument that lasted for several weeks.

*   *  *

In 2005 Dr Alex Hatton, who heads the Faculty of Genetic Science at The University of London Stratford, published the results of a comprehensive study into the effects of the LonB gene.
In a series of controlled experiments he demonstrated that all LonB carriers will perceive identical sense data in a consistent manner, and are able to give corroborating accounts of what they are experiencing. This research has been instrumental in dispelling the long held associations between LonB and mental illness by proving, to all but a few hardened sceptics, that the visions experienced by carriers have their foundations in reality and cannot be regarded as true hallucinations. It is now generally accepted that the presence of the gene grants carriers access to a frequency of the sensory spectrum that is ordinarily beyond the limits of human observation.  
At the time of publication, Hatton’s findings received extensive coverage in the media, transforming a previously taboo subject into something that was openly discussed and even desirable. On a recent visit to the London Charing Cross Road branch of Foyles bookshop, I managed to unearth five volumes on the subject of LonB in the Science section, two more in the London history department, seven in the travel section, nine works of fiction incorporating the gene as an integral part of their narrative, and one slender illustrated book aimed specifically at children, titled: Where The Rain Is Green.

There is a LonB-themed film in the works (London Eyes – described by its director Jonathan Copperwheat as an “unashamedly weepy romance” scheduled for release on February 11th of next year). The gene has also been featured as a plot device in countless television programmes, most notably in the long running BBC soap opera – EastEnders where the cafe owner Audrey North was revealed to be a carrier, having been previously been misdiagnosed as a schizophrenic and institutionalised.  
In addition to recording the experiences of carriers, Hatton’s research explores LonB's probable origins and the peculiar and baffling phenomenon of genetic localisation that allows the gene to induce perceptual anomalies within a specific area of London. In the past this has been a topic of much debate and has yielded many fanciful theories that take into consideration ESP, telepathy, quantum entanglement, group-consciousness and parallel universes.

Hatton observed that the LonB gene is present in individuals with ancestry traceable back to London during the late 1600s. His subsequent historical research focused on an account of a riot that took place in the city on the 31st October in 1678 and resulted in The Wyndham Sail tavern and an adjacent coopers being burned to the ground.
Records from this time make reference to a haul of “bearded” cockles dredged from the Thames estuary and sold by a seafood merchant named Albert Chignell from a stall near Saint Paul’s Cathedral. One account mentions a strange thread-like seaweed that had forced open the shells and grown into the flesh of the molluscs. Those who ate the cockles experienced hallucinations that are thought to have been the catalyst for the riot.

While there is no record of the fate of Arthur Chignell, various historical sources indicate that the victims of his tainted shellfish continued to experience visions and episodes of delirium for the rest of their lives and that this tendency was passed down to their offspring. The 18th century chronicler - Christian Stepbeds - notes that many of the sufferers who did not voluntarily leave London were forcibly corralled in a small area near to Saint Paul’s that became known as Shunned Alley.
Hatton suggests that an unknown fungal organism present in the cockles enacted a genetic mutation upon the bodies of those who ate them, and that this trait proved to be hereditary. More controversially, he speculates that the fungal organism might still survive somewhere in London, most likely in the depths of the river Thames, and that proximity to it by carriers of the gene may, by some unknown mechanism, be the trigger for the hallucinations.
His research also notes a gradual decline in confirmed incidences of LonB-specific phenomena over the past three decades (although anecdotal reports of LonB-based hallucinations have risen in line with increased coverage in the media), implying that the root cause, whatever it may be, is undergoing a gradual dilution. It is very likely that within a few more generations, London B will have been excised from human consciousness altogether.
In 2009 Emma Priestnell (the assistant manager of Weatherhill Expeditionary Outfitters in Piccadilly), Brian Borrie (who works in government policy) and myself (a clerical temp at my local hospital) obtained a grant from the National Lottery which has allowed us to establish The London B Foundation. Our goals are to promote a greater understanding of the gene and to provide support for carriers.
As a university student I supported myself by leading London B walking tours in which the guides employ various tricks and special effects to give LonB negative people an insight into this aspect of our nation’s Capital. This blog is intended as an extension of those tours. Over the coming months I hope to be able to share my knowledge of London B with people who will never experience the city in the way that I and my fellow gene carriers do.
~ Sam Redlark.

NEXT...  A sketch of a river