A HAIRCUT AND A HANGING


We are are rather looking forward to the opening of the shiny new Blackfriars station. The platforms will actually be on the bridge so you will be able to look up or down the Thames whilst you wait for your train as the bankers and the bohos come and go. Very nice. 

I was in the old, cute and rather wonkily shaped The Blackfriar pub just nearby the other day mulling on this and various other things about the area.  The name Blackfriars comes from the outfits of the Dominicans who built a monastery here long ago. Opposite is the rather grand art deco-ish white curve of the Unilever Building.  This used to be crowned by a row of classical statues.  They mysteriously disappeared when the building was re-furbished a couple of years back.  I know they weren't original but it was quite an unpleasant shock when the scaffolding came down - a bit like looking up to see an elegant friend who has just had a very bad haircut.


Curious as to what had happened, I investigated and, despite being fobbed off several times, was eventually told by a little bird that the statues been secretly spirited away to a private garden in Surrey. (A bit naughty this considering they were attached to a listed building).  Mind you, the area has a history of dodgy dealings.  Once called Alsatia and home to the Blackfriars' cousins the Whitefriars, until the18th century this was one of those extraordinary places with the privilege of 'Sanctuary' - that is an area officially beyond the law. Basically it was full of scumbags - some of the religious persuasion, some not. Next door the district known as The Temple remains the home of those other stretchers of justice, London's lawyers.

Near here too, the hidden river Fleet exits into the Thames in a giant chamber way below the surface.  Almost ten years ago, I visited it as part of my psychedelic studies (more on that here if you like). It is quite a gloomy place and the path under the bridge, now part building site / part wee-smelling concrete canyon, is rather melancholy too. 

Psycho-geographically, the desolate atmosphere may be the result (or perhaps the cause) of a macabre incident in the early 1980s when Roberto Calvi, a powerful Italian banker was found hanging under the bridge as dead as a defecit reduction plan. Just another London suicide?  Perhaps.  A few years ago, it was revealed that his neck showed no sign of hanging and his hands had never touched the bricks in his pockets that weighed him down.  In keeping with the historical tradition of Alsatia Mr Calvi was found to be rather beyond the law.  Fresh from one conviction, he was about to be put on trial again for his role at the heart of a massive international fraud ring. In another uncanny correspondence with the religious character of the district, he had fled Venice to take sanctuary here and was known as 'God's banker' because of his association with the Pope's bodyguard Archbishop Paul Marcinkus.  As a Vatican employee with the benefit of his own sanctuary from the law, the Archbishop was never questioned about the death (well not at least until he left this mortal coil for his own personal judgement day a couple of years back).

Currently of course there is something rather significant about the the image of a dead banker - as is evident on posters at the anti-capitalist protest a few hundred metres uphill by St Pauls.  And down here at the edge of the financial city of London, despite the shiny new glass and silver rising up above, I couldn't help but wonder as I finished my drink and wandered home, if the place of Mr Calvi's end was not in fact holding on to its old character.