Friday, February 19, 2010

Hawksmoor - Satan's Architect

I was back at my parent's house in northern England with the family this week. I always enjoy going back to the small town I grew up in, wandering around, drinking in a few memories. My parents house is a wonderful old place. I often find myself browsing through the bookshelves, digging out the odd book I read as a kid, some of which directly influenced what I do now, sometimes putting one in my bag when I leave to re-read. I did that this time, with Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd, part crime novel, part magical realism meta-narrative, but overall a cracking read by the probably the most pre-eminent chronicler of London and its dark past, its secret nooks and crannies. His biography of the city is, like the place itself, a sprawling joy and, coupled with his novels, one of the sources of my fascination with London and a big influence on my first novel in particular.

Hawksmoor was the least celebrated of London's great architects and church builders, overshadowed by Christopher Wren and John Vanbrugh. But he is more fascinating than either. There is something of the night about him. When I first moved to London I used to play five-a-side football in Spitalfields Market (built on a plague pit no less, which might explain why our team stank). After we finished we would wander down to Brick Lane for a post-match pint, passing Christ Church, designed by Hawksmoor, spire pointing majestically to the sky, it's sooted veneer giving it a very gothic splendour. In the streets around it, under the cover of night and fog, Jack the Ripper plied his gruesome trade, a fact which seemed kind of fitting (though funnily enough I once went inside the church and it was roomy and light and not at all macabre, which left me inexplicably disappointed.) His final victim, Mary Kelly, was killed and mutilated just around the corner. The pub she drank in, The Ten Bells, is still next door. Late at night, when the traffic is at its quietest, the years fall away and you can sense what it might have been like back then. The creepiness is tangible. Even in the day there is the nagging sense that all is not quite right, that the stain of something bad remains and can't be wiped away.

Christ Church is one of the six great churches Hawksmoor designed in the early 18th century. In his feverish poem, Lud Heat, another great London writer and psycho-geographer, Iain Sinclair,  posited the theory that the sites of these churches form an invisible geometry of power lines in the city, corresponding to an Egyptian hieroglyph, the Eye of Horus, which in turn provided a direct inspiration for Ackroyd's novel and the fascinating idea that the churches and the dark energy they channelled caused a huge amount of bad things to happen in their vicinity.

More recently, graphic novelist Alan Moore got his pentangles in a twist with his book From Hell, in which Hawksmoor, the Ripper, freemasonry and the monarchy were conflated into a grand Victorian conspiracy. I have still to read the book - I have a mental block when it comes to graphic novels - but saw the film with Johnny Depp and found it disappointing despite the fabulous subject matter. (I'd love to delve more into the Ripper mystery, but apparently another crime writer has got there before me...)

Hawksmoor was a Freemason and was in love with pagan symbols (don't anyone breathe a word to Dan Brown about all this...) Because of all this, he is more famous for being a secret Devil worshipper than an architect, which is harsh given the beauty of the buildings he was responsible for.

It makes for fascinating reading though.


Dan - Friday


  1. I'm sorry Dan, but the term "psycho-geographer" jumped out at me. There is a highway sign designed to have out-of-towners drive in circles as it indicates a ramp to travel south when locals know that it is actually taking drivers north so they can get on another highway that will take them to another ramp that will point them south, thereby costing the uninitiated about 20 minutes in drive time. Whoever came up with this had to be psycho and wanted to take other people with him. He merits the title of "psycho-geographer" in my definition.

    Your post reminds me, again, that we in the US have so little history. Although we have certainly outdistanced the world in serial killers, they don't have the glamour, after time has passed, that Jack the Ripper inspired.

    We do have Lizzie Borden who was acquitted of the murders of her father and stepmother. That inspired a rhyme that was used to sell newspapers and then became a chant kids used when they were jumping rope:

    "Lizzie Borden took an axe
    And gave her mother forty whacks.
    When she saw what she had done,
    She gave her father forty-one."

    In fact, her mother got 18 or 19 and her father 11 but the truth doesn't lend itself to rhyme. Unlike Jack the Ripper, Lizzie didn't inspire much creativity.

  2. I know what you mean about your parents house –I had the luck of staying with them last month, and I found myself pulling books off the shelves as well.

    Whilst you are on the topic of churches –I live in an old Victorian convent (the nuns are well gone now) and when I wake up in a morning the view out of the window is onto the roof of ‘our’ church. There is nothing more mysterious on a foggy morning seeing only the dark spires and gothic additions poking through the mist. I half expect to look out of the window and see nuns in dark habits secretly making their ways across the court yard !

  3. beth, hmm - I think I should have said 'student of psycho-geography rather than psycho geographer, which brings to mind an image of a man with leather patches on the elbows of his corduroy jacket wielding a knife. As for the lack of creativity when it comes to US killers or killings (we're a bloodthirsty bunch aren't we?), I don't agree. One of the best and most thrilling books I've read in recent years is Manhunt, James L. Swanson's book about the 12 day chase to apprehend John Wilkes Booth. Truly gripping and very evocative of the time.

    Giles, bloody hell. Good to hear from you. Old convents, mists, foggy mornings and dark spires? I may have to come and stay!

  4. ...forgot to add beth, that the great 'true crime' book I've read in recent years is Robert Graysmith's book about the Zodiac killer.

  5. Dan - I've read MANHUNT. There is a Catholic Church in Washington, DC, St.Patrick's, which was attended by Mary Surratt, the owner of the boarding house where the plot to kill Lincoln was hatched. One of the priests put together a history of the church which included the information that a priest from St. Patrick's was with Mary Surratt, on the scaffold, when she died.

    I have not read Robert Graysmith's book but I will track it down.

    Ford's Theatre (still a working theatre) is located at 511 10th Street. The boardinghouse to which Lincoln was carried is directly across the street. St. Patrick's is located at 619 10th Street and is much closer to Ford's Theatre than it sounds.