“London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair Lady.
Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay.
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair Lady.”
As I tread these streets of London, rain streaming off rooftops, puddles lining the paving-stones like little pools of transient street-art, concentric circles appearing and disappearing within them, I think of this city. This great great city.
It’s two days now after another senseless assault; people were hurt and killed. And my heart cries for them, and for the people who hold them so dear. And as I walk, I look around me, at the city streets through the driving rain.
I wander past London’s squares and structures, buildings and bridges: they whisper words into my ear, reassuring me with their stories from days gone by. History hangs heavy in the air, like mist, swirling through the city’s alleys and gardens, wispy tendrils of history clinging onto cobblestones and brickwork.
Too much history for some. And not always good. But in amongst the narratives of this city – tangling and jostling as they do – lies the very oldest one. One that’s still the loudest and proudest of them all – the indefatigable spirit of Londoners in the face of adversity.
And, even before last week, this is a narrative most strongly associated with London Bridge. Way back, when the bridge was first built almost 2000 years ago, it was the centre of a small but growing Roman settlement. But no less than five years after being built, it was promptly demolished by Boudica’s Iceni army. Yet, out of the rubble, another bridge gets built, the town reconfigures around it, and Londinium flourishes into the capital of Roman Britain.
Centuries later, and another seminal moment. The year’s 1633, and a terrible fire annihilates the bridge’s northern end – a great misfortune at the time. But thirty years or so later, with the bridge still not mended, The Great Fire of London breaks out north of the river; this wreckage now becomes a life-saving firebreak, sparing the south of the river from certain destruction. And from the ashes of The Great Fire, rise up Wren’s and Hawksmoor’s simple but graceful churches, statements of hope and defiance that will continue to define the city skyline for centuries.
But if there’s one passage of history that most symbolises this collective energy and endeavour, it’s surely the ‘Blitz spirit’ – a term that still continues to resonate strongly even today. Just uphill from London Bridge, volunteers set up The St Paul’s Watch – a 24-hour guard, ready and waiting. And as explosions and fires rage all around them, these plucky souls would line up bravely with their water buckets, desperately fighting to save the cathedral they love, the city they cherish.
And, as we move to the present day, it is this very same spirit that was evoked last week, when we hear of people running to help those fallen, or a police bobby fending off the attackers with his baton, or a local Romanian baker with his market crate, or the ‘Fuck you, I’m Millwall!‘ cry of defiance from another.
So, as I walk around London Bridge and its surrounding buildings, I try to see beyond the bricks and mortar – for these are just the physical incarnations – behind them lie the myriad stories of people coming together to rebuild, protect or honour them. As the nursery rhyme goes, it’s not wood and clay that ultimately save London Bridge from falling, but the brave endeavours of living breathing Londoners:
“Set a man to watch all night,
Watch all night, watch all night.
Set a man to watch all night,
My fair Lady.”
And after these recent heart-breaking events, some people will no doubt be feeling fear or anger or hate. And, to be honest, feelings are feelings: that’s just the way of them. But what matters most is how we respond, each and every one of us.
The very intent of these crimes is of course to instil such feelings, and in so doing, using our own emotions against us: trying to divide our communities, make us scapegoat others, stop us doing what we love. That’s the trap that’s laid. But this destructive power dissipates once we see and acknowledge them for what they are, and then make an active conscious decision not to give in.
Instead, we need to rejoice in all the good stuff, appreciate our families and friends, reach out to our neighbours, revel in our amazing cities, and salute the incredible values our society stands for – freedom, tolerance, diversity and love. The city has been through this before: so let’s hold on to why such values are so important in the first place, and why we’re so lucky to live in a place, and a time, where such values are allowed to flourish.
The recent One Love Manchester concert – instigated with such courage and grace by Ariana Grande – proved a most moving, rousing, defiant, and frankly joyous riposte to the events in my home town. So, for my adopted city – since I now also consider myself a Londoner – what better way to respond to events in Borough Market than to celebrate its – and the whole city’s – food, culture, community and energy. For this is who we are. This is what we do.
So this post is not so much a call to arms, but a call to cutlery, and a love-letter to Borough Market..
Today therefore, I’m toasting Kappacasein Dairy, and the best grilled cheese in the country, with its finely-honed combination of home-crafted deeply-flavoured Ogleshield and Montgomery cheddar cheeses, offset by a foil of caramelised onions, leeks and garlic. May that cheese continue to ooze down my chin with such gravitational abandon.
No evil can tame those toasties!
And today I’m bowing down in reverence to the bakers of Bread Ahead, whose doughnuts are soft pillowy cushions of love, filled with gorgeousness of vanilla and salted caramel. May they continue to coat my nose in sugar sprinkling, always.
No evil can diminish those doughnuts!
And today I’m proudly singing the praises of Padella, and the most accomplished fresh pasta this side of Bologna. Your pici cacio e pepe has opened my eyes to the beauty of pasta simplicity – great fat glistening worms, swimming in the most savoury sauce: creamy, piquant and peppery, a flavour that lingers long in the memory.
No evil can curb your cacio e pepe!
And today, it’s all hail El Pastor, whose tacos are honest authentic affairs, unstinting in chilli and flavour, flooding me with memories of my own Mexican travels: dusty one-cantina towns and ancient mystical ruins. May your salsas continue to sing forevermore!
No evil can temper those tortillas!
And here’s to all those other Borough Market stalls and artisans, pubs and cafés, who give so much energy and joy to those who visit. Honest workers and customers of every kind, of every race and religion, gender and ethnicity, nationality and sexuality.
So as I walk these streets of London, thinking about its history and its people, of its past adversities and it’s narrative of community and defiance, I hold my head up high, proud of its diversity and tolerance, its food and its culture. For, no matter what’s thrown at it, it’s going to continue to thrive.
My friends, London Bridge is staying strong.
Borough Market have provided more information on how to support their traders and other people affected on their website. This includes the #NightForLondon fundraising initiative from The British Red Cross, encouraging people to come together on Saturday night (10th June) to celebrate our fantastic city. And here’s another post which reflects on London’s diverse communities: ‘It’s Not Just Kricket, Reflections on Religion and Diversity‘.
Borough Market scenes