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History keeps breaking out

According to Peter Ackroyd, the highly successful author of Hawksmoor and other historic novels and biographies set in London, the new loft developments of Clerkenwell do not work and will probably prove to be a mistake: so beware, investors. Speaking at the Metropolitan Bookshop, as part of the Clerkenwell Literary Festival last week, he suggested that 'the spirit of the area is not conducive' to residential development - unlike Islington, 'which has a history of hospitality'.

Ackroyd's account of the history of Clerkenwell revealed his somewhat mystical slant on the processes which have created London's fabric and society: an angle which certainly provides some relief from the relentless materialism and commercialism of life in the great Metropolis. London seems to be increasingly run as a resource rather than a place where people live and have roots, a network of communities. Yet, suggests Ackroyd, there are influences at work which cannot be tamed by the rule of cost- and-profit analysis. 'The old characteristics of an area keep breaking through and subduing a new identity,' he explains, describing a number of 'strange and striking epiphanies' which support his idea.

Clerkenwell, he believes, is a typical example of 'an enchanted area' of London which draws people to it by a strange kind of magnetism bound up with the continuity of its history: 'eternity subtly intermingled with the stone and brick and ash and sand of London', as he puts it so eloquently. Its history can be traced back to the Iron Age, with the discovery of an ancient pit at Clerkenwell Green. During the Middle Ages, the area gained a reputation for populist demonstrations - such as that led by Wat Tyler in 1381 - dissent and radicalism. In the seventeenth-century, the printers of Clerkenwell were denounced for producing seditious literature, and in the eighteenth a number of pubs and coffee houses became meeting- places for dissenters. The Tolpuddle Martyrs and Chartists both congregated in Clerkenwell, and Lenin edited the revolutionary magazine, The Spark, in premises at 37a Clerkenwell Green. This tradition has continued up to the present, suggests Ackroyd, though the editor of The Big Issue was unaware of it when the magazine moved into offices nearby.

Ackroyd professes to a sense of wonderment that such continuity exists, when most people have no memory or knowledge of what went before. But the same uses do clearly continue on the same sites, usually due to topographical circumstances affirmed by planning controls which make change of use the exception rather than the rule. He describes how other areas have developed a tradition of certain types of activity, such as societies of the occult in Bloomsbury.

By contrast, imposed changes, like the nineteenth-century roads of New Oxford Street or Clerkenwell Road, built in the name of slum clearance, are 'strangely charmless, devoid of character: they don't succeed'. If this is so, it doesn't bode well for initiatives to regenerate and reinvent our cities.

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