Light and dark. After the London of the sunlit watercolours of St Etienne it seems apt to look at it from another angle through a song that has whispers of an older, sometimes darker, story, and is more of an etching than a painting. London has a long history, 2000 years, though the distant past is often nearer than might be thought. Some 25 years or so ago, on a Family History course, someone recounted being told by a man, then in his eighties ,of his grand-father recalling a family tale of his great –great- grandfather watching the Great Fire of London of 1665 from a distance.
The past, of course -even the more lurid episodes of history - can be packaged and sold like anything else, hence The London Dungeons experience and Jack the Ripper walks, both reputedly more popular with visitors to London than Londoners. Pop songs have not been immune to this, drawing on a music hall tradition of making entertainment from the macabre. Jack the Ripper, for example, was also a staple of Screaming Lord Sutch’s act in the early sixties, along with Sutch waving a butcher’s knife and set of rubber entrails. However, the more perceptive songs have recognised, and often regretted, the old being swept away by the new. Pop music came of age as some of the major transformations of London –and elsewhere-were getting going and as the London that would have been recognisable in Dickens’ time was being 'modernised' in the interests of global capital. The disappearance of older ways of life and values was, as already mentioned elsewhere, a theme in Ray Davies’ songs with the Kinks, out of step with the new and fashion-conscious sheen of Swinging London pilloried in Dedicated Follower of Fashion.
There have been some songs, however, that saw the old still there hidden away, and which can be compared to the writings of Ian Sinclair that explore the hidden and lost sides of the city, the unchartered territory above and below the ground. One of these was London, Queen of My Heart, by Cath Carroll, from her album of her name released in 2000. She had been in the Manchester punk scene in the late seventies/early eighties and had written for New Musical Express for a while. By the time of this ode to London, however, she had long re-located to America.
There is something shadowy, even eery, about the record that makes it linger in the mind like the damp chill remarked in the song. It is to do with the lyrics alluding to the secrets you can glimpse around you, the haunting music and the smoky voice, all calling up the lapping of the dark waters of the Thames on a foggy evening. This is a different kind of walk through London. St Etienne’s London Belongs to Me sees Camden Town as the entry point for a stroll to the dappled grass of Regents Park. Suggs’ Camden Town celebrates the ‘the string of Irish pubs as far as you can see...There’s tapas, fracas, alcohol, tobaccos’. Cath Carroll’s night bus from Camden Town passes over the ancient plague pits that lie beneath Camden Underground, passengers tumbling down the stairs hearing the echoes of Ring a –ring of Roses hovering in the air like the miasma by which the plague was once understood during the sickly summers of centuries gone. This tour takes in the black Serpentine and Hawksmoor’s ‘lost underground’. This could be a reference to Nicholas Hawskmoor, the Seventeenth/Eighteenth Century architect and designer of Christchurch, Spitalfields and other churches, or possibly to Peter Ackroyd’s novel of the same name, a detective story that revisits the dark side of eighteenth century London. It is also a reminder of the other aspects of the hidden underground of London, the lost rivers buried under concrete and, more prosaically, the closed tube stations left abandoned underground.
The song, however, is more than a mini secret history tour. It is also a love song to a city that continues to exert a pull – ‘I keep moving but you won’t let go’. It is perhaps strange that some songwriters who can seem very English at times in their songs also write from a distance. Cath Carroll continues to write about London from ‘exile’ in America, as with her recent Moon Over Archway. Maybe distance gives perspective, or maybe a love song is easier when the imperfections aren’t obvious and everyday. Her view of London is no less, or more, real than that of St Etienne or Donovan, though perhaps a more disturbing one. People make their own perspective from their relationship with the place. Cath Carroll has called this ‘a song for a lost love’-it could also be a soundtrack for a London lost but still visible if you know where to look.
Link to song
Link to song