Thursday, 8 June 2017
London is the jewel of my imagination. I was born and have lived my entire life in this city. This ancient, haunted place often makes me muse on the nature of Revelation. What it means to see, and to be given sight. I've lived in a lot of places in this city. Most recently I moved from Streatham; an area in the borough of Lambeth south of the river. Streatham was, among other things, the place where a teenage Aleister Crowley lived for a time. But now I find myself once again in Brixton, still south of the river. And London still speaks to me of revelation. At the end of my road there is a grand church, and I am rather fond of churches. It is St John the Divine, with the tallest spire in south London. It is a huge thing framed at the end of my road and towering above the street. This particular church is unique in all of London. It is adorned with caricatures of the British royal family depicted as gargoyles. Just behind the church is Patmos Road, a road I often walk to reach a beautiful Victorian public park, one of the few surviving Victorian urban parks in London. But this little road I walk – Patmos Road – is named for the Greek island where John the Apostle is said to have received his Revelation in the Cave of the Apocalypse. The church itself – St John the Divine – also features a life-sized statue of a crucified Christ upon the outside of the building. I often glance upon this statue as I make my way home at night. The whole area seems to speak of visions and revealings. But then, so much of London does for those with eyes to see.
These musings recently inspired me to visit St Paul's Cathedral. I love walking around this city, drinking in its sights, sounds and energies. I hadn't done it to my own satisfaction in a while. Before arriving at the cathedral I sat for a while in St Peter Cheap; a little square just off Wood Street, only a stone's throw from St Paul's. The little square was the site of a medieval church dedicated to St Peter that was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It now houses a surviving eighteenth century plane tree remarked upon by William Wordsworth in his poem 'Reverie of Poor Susan', in which he speaks evocatively of mountains ascending and a vision of trees. As I sat on one of the benches in the square and thought about the poet's words I noticed a graffiti on the centre of the wall behind me, faint but still legible. The graffiti felt rather Gnostic, and rather sobering: They Live. We are the harvest.
Thinking about those chilling words and the possible impetus of the person who had scrawled them there I took the very brief walk to St Paul's. I even wondered if I would come upon any other Gnosticism-resonant graffiti on my journey. And then, as these things often happen, I noticed words in faded black marker on a set of ground-level doors at the left-hand side of the cathedral. Again the words were faint but still legible. On the doors of this basilica to Paul the Apostle was written the Goddess is here, no more lies. Also was written Ishtar is here, and Sophia. And beside it the eight-pointed star of the Babylonian goddess of Love and War. I wondered at how long the graffiti had been there. It seemed it had been there for a while at least. I made my way up the front steps of the great cathedral and sat before its main entrance on the top step. I smoked a few cigarettes, drank from a bottle of mineral water, and thought about how important this cathedral was to me. It occupies a powerful place in my own internal dreamscape. My mother Diana had always intended to call me Paul until my father forbid it, claiming that his son should have a Hindu name rather than a Christian one. But even as a child I often thought of Paul as my 'secret name'. And so you can imagine that the history and mythology of St Paul's Cathedral has always held a very personal allure for me. Resurgam – I shall arise. As I sat on those steps, looking down Ludgate Hill, I began to think of other historical and mythological resonances important to me. My birthday is July 22, the Feast Day of Mary Magdelene, and also the date when thousands of Cathars were slaughtered by the Church during the Albigensian Crusade as they prepared to honour that same Magdelene at the town of Beziers in the Languedoc. These connections and resonances have been with me since I first learned of them in childhood. As I sat there I thought about Empire and its brutal pursuits. I thought about the graffiti I'd seen in St Peter Cheap. They Live. We are the harvest. I thought about war, terrorism, the hardening of the human heart. The disavowal of love and empathy. As my thoughts turned to darker subjects I even recalled that awful Hollywood movie London Has Fallen, that sets its first terrorist atrocity upon the steps of St Paul's Cathedral. I knew all too well that London often draws its revelations in darker shades, in senseless bloodshed and explicated power. The very next night I learned of the terror attack at London Bridge. This chilled me to my core, as you might imagine.
But that was not the end of my evening. I left the steps of St Paul's and walked down Ludgate Hill to the Thames. I followed along the embankment of the great river as twilight began to darken the sky. I sat between the paws of one of the sphinxes at Cleopatra's Needle and smoked a final cigarette as I gazed up at the three-thousand year old monument – the oldest in the city. Finally as night took the sky I wandered down to Westminster Bridge and listened to the rather ethereal music of a busker. The evening was warm and a small crowd had gathered around the street musician. People were smiling, enjoying the music and the warmth of the night. There on Westminster Bridge I thought again of Wordsworth, as I had done at the start of my journey, and lines from a poem he had composed upon this very bridge. Dull would he be of soul who could pass by, A sight so touching in its majesty. It felt like a strange, haunted evening, but full of life and mysterious spirit. So I didn't pass by. I stayed on the bridge for a long while with my fellow Londoners, all of us smiling and engaged as the street musician showed us things and took us places.