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.