Archive for the 'Anthropology' Category

Shape One

January 16, 2010

The Shape began close to a ghost road in East London. Ostensibly, the junction at the southern tip of Kingsland Road is a crossroad. Except it isn’t. The junction is the convergence point of four roads: Kingsland Road, Old Street, Shoreditch High Street and Hackney Road. But, in fact, there is a phantom fifth: a small invisible right turn leads Kingsland Road into Old Street: Ophir Road. As far as I know, its naming is obscured, perhaps even unmarked on street level, but the ever roving Google Eye discloses the past as simply as the present.

If that is not intriguing enough – that an ancient road can exist but not not be seen – then its name offers a further enigma. Ophir is a biblical name for an unidentified region. The name is linked with King Solomon’s Mines: a mythical treasure trove purported to exist in Zimbabwe, Pakistan and China, among others.

From Kingsland Road I took Ophir Road, unknown to me at the time, and my perambulation – and Shape One – began. I hadn’t planned the shape, and in fact I wasn’t conscious that the shape had begun either. I was heading to the Artbook Bookshop on Pitfield Road and as soon as I turned the street corner I could see the bookshop was closed. A small panic arose, subdued only by reaching the sign in the window. I would have to wait a further  forty minutes until it opened and it was then I decided on my derivé.

I crossed Old Street diagonally, to the corner of Tabernacle Street, where a nondescript religious brick monument stands opposite another, doomed, brick bastion which holds a far more powerful and contemporary resonance: The Foundry. Along Tabernacle and right into Leonard Street, sidling beside the church nestled among the bars, graphic designers and architects. Along one side of the church prose had been sprayed on a long jet-black construction hoarding. The silver sprayed words disjointed, dodging and weaving the fly posters. It read:

NO Different to Our Fathers Sons
OUR BOYS We Bring Em Back
In Shrouds
Wrapped tight in UNION
We say that they our Glorious
We name these Boys as BRAVES
We call these MEN
We tell them to their Graves
For until Each one is
Pray For
Our Collective Violence
And if we say they died in vain
AND SHATTER Bitter Comfort Dear!
Held Dear Close
They Do Not Die In Vain My Friends…
They Do Not Throw Their Turn A WAY
They Die So We Can See Ourselves
Real Souljahs

It finished abruptly, the final word missing. Perhaps the author ran out of time. Perhaps the author was caught.

What followed was a series of loops. I walked in a circle around the wheel at the crossing of Leonard Street and Paul Street, and then I took another loop around the old Church and back onto Leonard Street to head East. I crossed  Great Eastern Street (presumably named after the 1862 railway company) and up Charlotte Road to cross Old Street and into Hoxton Square. There I made a full anti-clockwise circuit.

On Coronet Street, behind the Lux bar, stands The Vestry Of St Leonard Shoreditch Electric Light Station with its Latin motto carved in stone:

E PULERE LUX ET VIS (‘Out of the dust, light and power’).

Over time since 1895 it burnt refuse to create steam which powered a generator for electricity. Only the shell remains now. Inside, students use the huge chambers to learn the circus trade. From here, I sauntered up a Hoxton vein (Pitfield Street) into the heart of Hoxton, past The George & Vulture pub, past the Habidashers Alms house, bombed in World War I.

By now the bookshop had to be open. So I moved south down Pitfield Street and Shape One ended.


The Homicidal Crowd

June 19, 2009

It was on a British programme called Ghosts On The Underground that I first heard about the WWII tragedy at Bethnal Green Station. The programme’s format was to interview LU staff, who spun their ghoulish tales to camera, interspersed with dramatised vignettes and some great photography of the underground system. The Tube, having been built on countless gravesites and plague pits, and witness to many human disaters, is always ripe for tales of well known and not-so-well-known stations and their spooky happenings after hours.

One particular interview that has stuck with me was about Bethnal Green station. This is because it was my local station at the time I watched the programme. On 3 March 1943, amidst a period of WWII when more civilians were dying than soldiers, a mass panic ensued at Bethnal Green station which was doubling as a public bomb shelter. At 8.17 the air raid alert sounded and 1500 people fled into the station which already contained between five and six hundred people. At 8.27 a local anti-aircraft launcher fired rockets into the sky, which began a mass panic amongst people on the street. Those trying to get into the station believed the bottleneck at the entrance was caused by people being refused entry and so they began to push.  Moments later and people were being crushed to death, their screams masked by the sound of gunfire and rockets. 173 men, women and children were crushed to death, and a further 14 men, 33 women and 15 children were seriously injured. Ironically, no bombs had even fallen from the skies within 2 miles of the station. This was the psychology of an homicidal crowd: ‘every man for himself’.

In Ghosts On The Underground, a member of staff at Bethnal Green station recalls hearing screams of women and children coming from the platforms, but I think the event that created the alleged haunting is far more sinister: what can happen if you’re caught amongst a crowd of people all trying to save themselves.

Soon after the programme I went down to the station to see if I could find a commemoration. There is a relatively small  plaque over the south east entrance which you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. In hindsight, this seems to mirror the attitude of the inquiry after the tragedy, which was hampered by having to remain almost secret, lest ‘the enemy’ find out and exploit panicking crowd psychology to their advantage.

The Future Is On The Internet

March 25, 2009

Type any future date into Wikipedia and you will find out what is going to happen.

From the Wikipedia entry on 2010: “According to David Crystal, author of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, the change of pronunciation to “twenty X” will occur in 2011, as “twenty eleven”, explaining that the way people pronounce years depends on rhythm, rather than logic. Crystal claims that the rhythm or “flow” of “two thousand (and) ten”, beats that of “twenty ten”, but the flow of “twenty eleven” beats “two thousand (and) eleven”.”