Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mary in St Paul's, almost

This is the third in a series of Wednesday walks. The first traced Mary Wollstonecraft's final days in Somers Town, and the second visited St Pancras Church, the scene of her marriage and burial. We -- the Japanese historian, the Swedish theatrician, and I -- were last seen indulging in a pot of tea at Drink Shop Do. Back in the day, Dissenters and Abolitionists were at the forefront of the boycott of slave-grown, i.e.. West Indian, sugar, and today's fair trade campaigns spring from the same instinct and indirectly the same roots. Mary called the slave trade one "that outrages every suggestion of reason and religion", so she remains with us even in the tea room.

Out the door, turn right, and in a few steps we are at Housmans, "radical booksellers since 1945". I took my little party inside and we looked around. With professional acuity, Chihiro scented Mary across the room, and zoomed in like a sniffer dog on a top-shelf copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, the 2010 edition by Verso with an introduction by Sheila Rowbotham. Housman's website has a page for Mary, though strangely it doesn't list that book: 
As a tribute to one of the most gifted literary families of all time, Housmans retain a moderately comprehensive stock of books written by the Wollstonecraft family. 
I just love that: "the Wollstonecraft family". The shop sells postcards of the gravestone we visited in the previous leg of the walk, daffodils a-nodding. By this point the performance designer had to leave us for another appointment, but the historian, aware that this was her last 24 hours in London, wanted to continue. Great, said I, let's go looking for another plaque I've never seen before.

Surrounding buildings change, but the cathedral is much
as Mary would have known it. (Wikimedia Commons)
Across the street is the bus stop for number 17, which took us straight to St Paul's Cathedral. Wren's masterpiece survived World War II relatively unscathed, despite the best efforts of the Luftwaffe,  but a lot around it was destroyed, so we didn't spend the fading daylight searching for remnants of Joseph Johnson's publishing house, which would have been in the immediate vicinity.  (I've since found out abut a free rooftop gallery opposite the cathedral, and next time I might go up One New Change.)

We headed across the blade of light, the formerly wobbly pedestrian bridge, and imagined the Pool of London in the late C18, the beginnings of the real commercial success of the British Empire. It would have been packed thick with ships, laden with riches from Indias east and west: quinquiremes of Nineveh, sailing home to haven in cloudy London-town. (The so-called Rhinebeck panorama, held by the Museum of the Docklands, gives a good idea.) Ahead of us was the former power station, better known by the name of a sugar magnate who was born to a Unitarian clergyman. To one side of Tate Modern is Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, and to the other, a net of confusing streets we had to untangle. Just as the sun was setting, we found our plaque.

I've been told these posts tend to be on the lengthy side, and have been advised to curtail them. So -  the walk will continue next Wednesday, when I promise you that building, and the plaque, and a poem. 

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