All text copyright Stephen Coates 2006 - 2015


I enjoyed listening to Peter Ackroyd read and be interviewed last night.  He is a neighbour psycho-geographically speaking and an undoubtedly impressive personage, The event was to mark the publication of the first volume of his "History of England".  An eccentric workaholic loner, a legendary storyteller, a lover of London and England's cultural heritage, he is a bulky man and is starting to remind me somewhat of Winston Churchill.   He is very funny in a dry sort of way and whilst a popular (and populist) writer remains seemingly indifferent to the great affection in which he is held.  In contract to his slim and enthusiastic interviewer, his demeanour oscillated between that of an impatient headmaster and a cornered badger about to bolt.  Throughout, he appeared keen to leave and get back to his writing - as well he might, having another FIVE volumes of the history to get through before its putative completion in 2024. 

He generally responded to questions with an economy bordering on irascibility.  One audience member asked one of those long, self important questions which was really a lengthy assertion of their own cleverness followed by the preposterous enquiry "Of the tens of thousands of facts in your book, how many would you stand up for in court and attest were definately true?"

"None." barked Peter and turned to the next questioner.

The interviewer had a bit more luck teasing information out and asked what we were all dying to know: "How on earth do you manage it?".  (His output is prodigious and beginning to rival that of his literary hero Dickens: novels; biographies; the histories; poems; essays - he just keeps pouring them out).  His response managed to be both simultaneously indignant and poignant:  

"I haven't got anything else to do." he said and left it that.

He evidently has a taste for the macabre.  His reading had all been about the gruesome crimes and punishments of the mediaeval period and he left us with some very entertaining and insightful thoughts on the recent London riots, slavery and celebrity TV historians.  I thought at one point he almost came out as a potential cross-dresser.

A final question from the floor asked what sort of person London would be like if it had a being of its own  - as seems to be implied by the title of his seminal work "London: a Biography".  Whilst he was mulling this over, I looked around and guessed that a few of audience were probably thinking what I was thinking.

It would be like Peter Ackroyd.


During the recent London riots,   I happened to be far away on the Scottish island of Skye so I cannot recount any personal experiences of the mayhem.  However, I couldn't help but notice that in the acres of news coverage and analysis, almost nothing has been said about London's long history of rioting.
We often talk of such events in a shocked 'what is the world coming to?!' sort of way when in fact they are not a new phenomenon at all or even particularly unusual. 
There have always been riots here - often politically motivated in response to some injustice -  but often just for the hell of it.   Boudicca kicked off the former, kind with a very heavy assault on Roman Londinium after the rape of her daughters.  She and her followers pretty much burned the town down and massacred the entire population with some pretty gruesome tortures before being finally brought down near KIngs Cross. Amongst the others like the anti-Catholic Gordon riots  and the anti-racist Brixton riots several started here in dear old Clerkenwell which, despite today's complacent cappucino drinkers, was once a hotbed of political activism. Check out the Karl Marx memorial library if you fancy a bit more of that.

But the thing which really bothered us this time was the looting, burning and the murders.  The bourgeoise are terrified of gangs: when property is your main concern, the mob seem the biggest threat.  We generally have the welfare state to keep that at bay of course but it has always broken out now and again.  As a fan of West Side Story, I have always had a certain sneaking sympathy for gangs and of course it's worth remembering that many of the seventeenth and eighteenth century London gangs - the Mohocks, the Hawkubites, the Nickers, the Scowerers. the Hectors - were posh, vicious rich boys who loved ripping it up and violating the poor.  The Mohocks were a particularly nasty bunch - they used to love catching people, mutilating them and rolling them in a barrel down Snow Hill just south of here.   Ouch.  I have rolled down Snow Hill myself a couple of times after late nights in Smithfield and I can tell you, that really must have hurt.

Here is John Gay on the subject:

From Mohock and from Hawkubite,
Good Lord deliver me,
Who wander through the streets at nigh
Committing cruelty.
They slash our sons with bloody knives,
And on our daughters fall;
And, if they murder not our wives,
We have good luck withal.

The Gordon rioters graffited the walls of Newgate prison with the slogan "His Majesty King Mob" a name more recently taken up by pre-punk situationist pranksters in West London in the 1970s.  One of their slogans would have easily subtitled last months excitement:

"I don't believe in nothing - I feel like they ought to burn down the world - just let it burn down baby"

Boudiccea is a heroine now of course.  You can see her in full vengeful flight on the embankment opposite the houses of parliament.  She, the original anti-establishment figure, has become the establishment epitome of vigorous Englishness.