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Authors: Iain Sinclair

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Warm, refreshing rain. I stood by the dome of the sealed entrance to the Rotherhithe Tunnel in King Edward's Memorial Park, Shadwell. This route has been aborted; the pilgrimage to the shrine of Prince Lee Boo in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin is now a folk memory. I turned from the ironwork – with its obsolete frets and curls, celebrating the initials of the London County Council – and walked away down an avenue of pollarded trees towards the Highway.

I had meant, for years, while tramping its verges, to take a closer look at St Paul, Shadwell: ‘traditionally known as the Church of Sea Captains'. Here were baptized the mother of Thomas Jefferson; the eldest son of Captain Cook; and Walter Pater, a confirmed bachelor. The church grounds, now cruelly abbreviated, ran down to the river's edge. The present structure, rebuilt in 1820 as a ‘Waterloo Church', is a workmanlike branch-line station, knocked up by the railway architect, John Walters. It is plain-spoken, untemperamental: a refuge that quietly offsets the Portland-clad baroque grandeur of Hawksmoor's St George-in-the-East. Easily ignored, St Paul stands as a sanctuary from this other sanctuary – which has recently been assaulted by devil-worshipping poets and dealers
in the junk bonds of fiction. The crypt, Joblard informs me, was used as a campsite for the embarking Angolan mercenaries.

These superficial intimations of grace are suddenly challenged by a manic drumming, a ringing of handbells, a torrent of deep-throat chicken-slaughter chants in honour of
Les Invisibles
. The red church doors are flung open and, down the steps on to the rain-slicked stones, comes a mad voudoun (Catholic, Pentecostal, Masonic, speaking-in-tongues, Judaic lost tribe) funerary procession. A weaving wailing convocation of all the religions, faiths, and superstitions: bay-leaf-swatting cardinals, swordsmen, aproned dignitaries, bearded patriarchs, crusaders with the cross of Malta, and foxy ladies slithering electrically on stilt heels. Comes a mute gaggle of shock-white cockney shufflers, in wraparound shades, manipulating – on bone shoulders – the flower-decked canoe. Comes the pendulum of incense, the sweat-flecked drummer, the jigging and jiving roll-eye smokers. Comes Iddo Okoli, the giant; hat in hand, overcoated, weeping. He waves a great handkerchief like a flag of surrender. He is floating the death-canoe on a tide of faith. He is launched. And all can view the handsome face of the still child: marked with tribal scars, so that his beauty should not excite envy and hatred.

The wailing of the women is unbroken. A dagger-point of heat between my shoulders: I am pressed forward, stumbling up the steps of the church. I enter the darkness. At the head of the aisle is a clay jar, a
govi
, in which is trapped the
gros-bon-ange
, the double of the child. His water-shadow. The jar is set between candles, in a pentacle of white sand. It is guarded by the
vever
for Agwé: twin craft with patterned sails, a toy flag, and the word,
IMMAMOU
.

I kneel and – with an unpremeditated gesture – touch a finger to the water, break the surface. The grip of the conditioned mind falters, something unshaped moves through my stunned defences. I am ‘mounted', in such a way that I cannot speak, or choose the order of my words. My ego is stopped, and in that moment of dizziness, blood rushing to my head – I can only make a report, I
cannot act. I have brought with me, as an offering, the unresolved death of Tenbrücke, and I have received the
esprit
of Iddo Okoli's son. I am suspended between them. I know now that above the walls of this church is another church; above this shamed city is a bright twin. All the barren space we can imagine is named and guarded, sacred; each moment of the day has its angel, to be recognized and honoured. Detail sharpens: the texture of the wood is numinous, living. The walls shine and open.

The body of the child, the returning ancestor, is carried in his canoe out on to the Highway. The drums of the procession stutter and fade: after-images blown into the distance, lost. It never happened. The door is wide. The candle flames shiver in a gentle wind. Shafts of pale sunlight break through the low clouds.

But, looking into the neck of the
govi
, I see the true procession break away from this other, and return to the riverside, to Wapping Stairs: marmosets chattering on the shoulders of the men, oracular birds restored to the trees. I see the white vessel launched from the beach. I see trailing flowers catch and absorb the death of Tenbrücke. The tide sweeps the craft into the Lower Pool. And I know I have no choice: by whatever distance I fall short, I must begin my attempt in this place.

III
Horse Spittle
(
The Eros of Maps
)

‘Fly, I sispected – Horse, I dint'

George Herriman,
Krazy Kat

Fredrik Hanbury, the writer, sat opposite me, across a pine table; drumming his thumbs. Roland Bowman stood at its head, moving backwards and forwards, pausing, smiling, gliding to the stove, the shutters, the foot of the stairs; peering up, finger to his lips, in case his mother should call. Roland's knitted waistcoat – a sunburst among the calculated minimalism of the basement – could not be bought at any counter: you felt Roland had always owned it, it had been passed on to him at some discreet family initiation. You also felt, noticing the ease with which he possessed his space, that while he remained in this kitchen Roland would never age. He was weathered, fit, tanned; beached, safely, on the far shore of thirty. And would be true to that condition for as long as his tenure in Fournier Street lasted. He slid gracefully over the flags of stained-glass sunlight, gesturing, talking; a red coffee pot pivoting on his outstretched arm. Here, beneath the level of the street, it was dim, caged: cool stone floor, smooth wood panels muted in gesso. Everything was slow, calm, concentrated. Whatever was spoken was burnt, momentarily, into the air; and could be read, before it was heard. Roland refilled our hand-painted mugs with his strong black brew. I tasted the grains with my tongue.

‘She was a very unusual person.' Roland caught me trying to decode the framed photograph. Was it contemporary? Or was it one of those theatrical poses that certain stallholders try to pass off as ‘Art Deco', ‘Art Nouveau', or anything else with ‘art' in
the title: straining to make the mere sound of the words inject a nostalgia for the robed, the remote, the indecent… the expensive. A girl, they suggested, had also to be a flower, the twisted stem of a glass, or a wind-tossed flounce of drapery. But the point with the portrait that had taken my fancy was that the subject, this girl, was obviously
aware
of the camera, and its technical limitations; and yet the result seemed natural, spontaneous, a challenge. She was naked. The print was deceptively grey and soft – which made it difficult to date. The photographer had been careful not to impose a queasy subtext: to make a confession of his own inadequacy. He was not ‘saying' anything. He could have been blind. The starkness and brutal directness of the final image suggested that the girl had taken the shot by an act of will, controlling the light and the focus for the precise exposure she wished to celebrate. ‘This,' she said, ‘is how I want to remember myself.'

Then Mother did call, unshrill, an interested upstairs voice; and Roland, indulgent, went to her, taking her a cup of coffee, an onion roll warm from the oven. He held the jug out, as if it were guiding him, an oil lamp: he pirouetted the tight stairway, talking back to us over his shoulder. Now Fredrik, who was fretted by a restless and finger-jabbing energy – who talked best on his feet – came around the table, to take the photograph into his hands: he gave his tribute gladly, to the beauty, the strength, and the potential mystery of the girl. We were happy, on the instant, to jettison the original, and rather dubious, pretext for our visit: we would draw breath, wait, follow whatever announced itself to us. If we did not impose the reflex inhibitions of disbelief, we would surely come, without strain, to the heart of the tale. We no longer believed in ‘Spitalfields' as a concept: in ‘zones of transition', New Georgians, ‘the deal', or any of that exhausted journalistic stuff. We had something much better: a story we did not understand. It is always much more enjoyable to play at detectives than at ‘researchers', who gather the evidence to justify the synopsis they have already sold.

The girl, on her knees, arms thrown back, was a dancer. She was effecting some kind of Isadora Duncan, swan-raped,
Noh
swoon: demonstrating both her ‘inner stillness' and the power she exercised over her body. If there
had
been an assistant, he (or she) had lit the undecorated set to the key of the disturbing mood the dancer was insisting on: the self-exposure was posthumous, and fiercely erotic. She lay upon a memorial slab, the chrome maquette of a notorious torture baron. We could do nothing at all to get closer, either to this presentation, or to the girl herself: the implied narrative. It was too late to withdraw. Our interest was aroused, feverish. We would have to wait. Take whatever Roland chose to give us. It couldn't be forced. Now there was a streak of tension to fracture the restored empathy of the underground Huguenot kitchen. No florid and sentimental inscription defaced the photograph. It could have been sold in its thousands, sepia-tinted, a gaiety postcard; but we were convinced this was the only surviving copy. We were also convinced we would have to travel back through the dancer's grainy window to enter the story she had already persuaded us to demand from her.

Roland, returning with a tray, set it down on the table, assumed Fredrik's abandoned chair and – unprompted – told us about his friend, Edith Cadiz, the dancer. She was originally, he supposed – the matter was never discussed – an unconvinced Canadian. He didn't blame her for that. He'd never met any other kind. But it did leave an ineradicable trace, the faintest whiff of bear grease; and a clear-eyed, unEnglish humour to qualify her almost masculine assertion of self. You noticed next the unnatural smoothness of her body: the smoothness of the professional performer. The fierce options she enforced on her body only stressed the essentially private nature of her quest. She recognized the same loneliness in Roland, the same pattern of wounds. They were alone because they would not compromise the defiance of their solitude. They had been touched, and often, and would continue to be touched; but they would never drop that shield of protective charm. They cultivated the closeness of
orphans, or revolutionary comrades in exile; making no demands on each other; seeing each other accidentally, for – much prized – afternoons of gossip and silence.

Edith came to this country, modestly funded, with money her mother saw as a final pay-off: she settled in Palliser Road, Baron's Court – a piece of ground given back to a squabble of more or less house-trained colonials, as being otherwise unfit for human habitation. She embarked, unenthusiastically, on the usual acting, modelling, and waitressing courses that she was far too intelligent, and singular, to complete. She was not without ego, and a certain talent for showing off; but she preferred not to demonstrate her capabilities, while some anthropoid agent's hairy chaingang-paw crawled up her skirts. It wasn't so much that she felt her virtue was worth more than a couple of bottles of Retsina: she wearied of the invariable bullshit surrounding this banal and ugly transaction. They never said, ‘Fuck me and I'll get you the Royal Court.' The fatherly monologues were so repetitive, so punctuated with sincere smiles, and confidence-inducing pats on the thigh. They could have been put on disk: (a) boastful lists of possessions, (b) holiday yarns, (c) ingratitude of former clients, (d) venality of producers, (e) excellent prospects of increased earning capacity, (f) desirability for prolonged discussion in more congenial environment.

Neither was Edith keen to transform herself into a sunsilk bimbo, gagging on rampant chocolate-coated members, and conducting furtive assignations with a jar of coffee. She didn't want to pick up brownie points hanging around holes in the ground with Peggy Ashcroft and Ian McKellen, or picket embassies to get the parts that Julie Christie turned down. She wanted to be left alone to discover the limits of what she could become. She wanted to relish performance for its own sake, to use her power to the full – because that, more than anything else, gave her satisfaction.

Roland, as he explained, had not initially been involved with whatever it was she was working on. She called around for a cup
of tea. She chatted with Mother. She ate Roland's biscuits. Sometimes she slept for two or three nights in Fournier Street. And then, out of the blue, one August morning, she knocked on the street-door, and invited Roland to come and see her show. She was leading a dog on a chain: a heavy-pelted wolf cousin, a male. Roland went with her. The show was amazing: ferocious, insulting, funny. And performed in the most unlikely – and previously resistant – setting: the Seven Stars, Brick Lane.

Our current obsession with colonizing the past – as the only place where access is free – had made available, courtesy of the Borough Library, a collection of reproduction maps of East London: gaudy fakes to authenticate any cocktail bar. They were inexpensive, printed on stiff card; with roads, the colour of dried mustard, sprouting from the empurpled lamb's heart of the City. You could walk your fingers in imaginary journeys, and sneeze from the real dust that you disturbed. The Thames was alive; a slithering green serpent, a cramp in the belly.

Edith's particular favourite was
Laurie & Whittle's New Map of London with its Environs, including the Recent Improvements 1819
. And she had constructed, with paste and a heavy needle, a costume shaped from this map: part Edward Gordon-Craig, part Maori kite-bird – a feathered storm-disperser. Wearing it, she became an angel of threat; or a demon of bliss. She respected the traditional accoutrements of her trade – the cloak, the gloves, the boots, the thong – but she elaborated their shape, the angle of the shoulders, the constriction of the waist, until she turned herself into a living artefact, a weapon. She played with her make-up: her slightest movement provoked a paradoxical reading of the history of the patch of ground on which her audience were standing. She was increasingly absorbed, excited. Colour printers in Wilson Street provided enlargements of especially libidinous zones:
The Victualling Office
,
Sugar Loaf Green
,
Callico Houses
,
Morning Lane
.

BOOK: Downriver
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