A Thank You Letter to My Fellow Blake Walkers

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Dear Blake walkers

Thank you very much from New River Press and I for joining us on the unprecedented adventure of five different poetopographical William Blake walks on consecutive Sundays in London. It felt a bit like this:

All fell towards the Center, sinking downwards in dire ruin,
In the South remains a burning Fire: in the East. a Void
In the West, a World of raging Waters: in the North; solid Darkness
Unfathomable without end: but in the midst of these
Is Built eternally the sublime Universe of Los & Enitharmon

On ‘Nov 3 Central’ we began in South Molton street where Blake lived for 17 years and processed through the central London sites where he was born and baptised, where he studied and worked. The family home where he later held his one and only solo show in 1809 is now the site of a boarded up Patisserie Valerie. A towerblock, William Blake House, looms unapologetically behind. The loss of 28 Broad Street to the demolition ball is a tragedy and scandal, but the zone is still a very special portal in Soho. ‘The Corner of Broad Street weeps…’ We ended having a drink in what is now called Broadwick Street, chez John Snow. Thanks to my brother Roddy McDevitt for his readings from Blake’s poems.

On ‘Nov 10 East’ we donned the bonnet rouge for the most incendiary of the walks which saw Blake paired off with the medieval firebrand Wat Tyler. In 1381, Tyler and his cohorts burned down the Savoy Palace, home of the most hated man in the realm, John of Gaunt. In 1821, Blake came to live at 3 Fountain Court – now Savoy Passage – by what is today the staff entrance to the famous hotel. When I pointed to the first floor where William and Catherine lived for six years and where Blake died, a porter informed us that the space is one of four Savoy kitchens. We progressed from Blake’s death-place to his burial ground via the Newgate site of the Gordon Riots and then Smithfield where Tyler was killed by William Walworth. Bearding the lion in his den, we confronted the statue of Sir Francis Bacon in Grays Inn until it began to sprout batwings and cloven hooves. Having found the site of the long disappeared Albion Tavern, we ended in a still extant pub, The Masque Haunt, seated between information boards about Milton and Blake. Thanks to Stephen Micalef for his readings from Blake inc. ‘Let the Slave’.

On ‘Nov 17 South’ we met at the Blackfriars site of Albion Mills on the south side of the bridge – which was attacked by arsonists in 1791, after Blake had just moved south to Lambeth. A hat-trick of burnt-out buildings! We then explored Arthur Rimbaud’s Victorian Waterloo before crossing into Blake’s Georgian Lambeth. After attending the strange funeral of Friedrich Engels at the London Necropolis Railway, we explored the Blake mosaics under the arches and then invaded the site of his garden behind the facade of William Blake Estate on Hercules Road. We ended in The Pineapple. Thanks to Adam Sherry for his reading of ‘Ruts’ by Arthur Rimbaud.

On ‘Nov 24 North’ we braved the ‘ostentatious exertion’ which is the mark of ‘the Soldiers of Satan’ i.e. walking Hampstead Heath in search of Blake and other visionary poets. The Oak Hill Grove site of Gerard Manley Hopkins youth remains suspiciously druidic – we recited ‘Merlin’s Prophecy’ by a tower block called Merlin House, noting its eerie relevance to the Prince Andrew saga. Following in the footsteps of Blake in his old age, we called upon the cottage of his friend and fellow artist John Linnell in the wilds of North End, finding sanctuary in the Old Bull and Bush. Thanks to Jennifer Johnson for reading Joanna Baillie, to David Amery for reciting Blake’s ‘Never seek to tell thy love’, and to Jacky Ivimy for sharing a few thoughts about her ancestor John Linnell, in situ.

Merlin’s Prophecy

The harvest shall flourish in wintry weather
When two virginities meet together:

The King & the Priest must be tied in a tether
Before two virgins can meet together.

On ‘Dec 1 West’ we gathered under Marble Arch and tried to locate the exact position of the Gate of Los. I imagine it as Marble Arch swung sideways and repositioned at the very beginning of Oxford Street, arching over the street itself, where the turnpike toll once stood.

Bending across the road of Oxford Street; it from Hyde Park
To Tyburns deathful shades, admits the wandering souls
Of multitudes who die from Earth

We honoured the dead on the triangular traffic island on ye olde Watling Street, now Edgware Road, then moved from the burial site of Cromwell to the current home of Tony Blair. This marathon walk took us though the site of the Cato Street Conspiracy of 1820, and the former homes of Charles and Frederick Tatham. Catherine Blake lived with the latter after Blake’s death until her own demise in 1831. This was a disaster as Frederick Tatham later sold off and destroyed many of Blake’s copperplates and manuscripts. We met another of Blake’s disciples George Richmond as well as one of Blake’s possible British-Israelite teachers, Richard Brothers. After locating Jerusalem’s Pillars at the site of the Jews’ Harp Tavern we strenuously mounted Primrose Hill. Thanks to John Higgs for extemporising about the monumental power of Blake’s words carved into stone. Thanks also to Heathcote Ruthven for reading ‘A Little Boy Lost’ and ‘The Chimney Sweep’; and to David Erdos for reading ‘The Wisdom of Urizen’ and ‘The fields from Islington to Marybone’. One or two others did readings during the series, but I didn’t get their names.

Thanks to all who came on all of the walks, and to anyone who came on any. Check out 2020’s Poets Calendar on the New River Press site. There might be something for you; and there will be additions especially in the summer months. The final word is from Los:

Inspiration deny’d; Genius forbidden by laws of punishment:
I saw terrified; I took the sighs & tears, & bitter groans:
I lifted them into my Furnaces; to form the spiritual sword.
That lays open the hidden heart: I drew forth the pang
Of sorrow red hot: I workd it on my resolute anvil:

Photo: Jacek Zebrowski
Niall McDevitt

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About Niall McDevitt

Niall McDevitt > poet > author of b/w (Waterloo Press, 2010) and Porterloo (International Times, 2012) > urban explorer > radical pedestrian who leads Shakespeare/Blake/Rimbaud /Yeats walks, among others.
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