December 19th, 2011 | Published in Articles
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Part four of Stephen Grasso’s psychoarchaeological excavation of London charts the mysterious vaults beneath the Bank of England, discerns the old ghosts of England channelled in contemporary protest theatre and sounds a rallying cry in the battle to reclaim our sacred space.
Dwell on these streets for as long as you like, but eventually the force of gravity will draw you towards the crossroads at Bank. The fat ugly spider’s web at the centre of the city. The Bank of England squats at Threadneedle Street like an ominous fortress. Its oppressively high windowless walls provoke an air of occupation. The grim battlements of a subjugating power that has prepared itself to defend against inevitable siege. Every so often it has to. Blood runs red on Throgmorton and Lothbury knows slaughter. The stone ziggurat has huge iron doors on each side like Biblical seals, inscribed with symbols of Masonic significance. Rampant lions with serpent tails guard twin keys and keep watch. A gold statue of Shakespeare’s Ariel surmounts the structure – broadcasting the dark magus Prospero’s colonial domination of the airy mystery of commerce. Opposite on Prince’s Street is the building where the first ever postmark was struck, and on nearby King William Street is the Church of St Mary Woolnoth, designed by Hawksmoor and incorporating a relief of Mercury on the outside wall – winged helmet like the golden age Flash and Caduceus staff in hand.
Every crossroads is a place of power, sacred to Legba, Mercury and Eshu, and the Bank is best considered a spell etched in stone at the central crossroads of the Old City. An enchanted monolith that both physically consolidates and functions as a living repository of financial power – a black art wielded with such deftness and agility that we have forgotten that it was ever a spell. The most potent enchantment is that which embeds itself so thoroughly into our frame of reference that we can no longer imagine life without it. The Bank is the Old Boy’s Pentacle, writ large. It dominates the landscape, but its labyrinthine underground vaults are reported to contain more space than the overground mass of the NatWest Tower, now renamed Tower 42, for decades the tallest building in the city. The area was allegedly a former red light district known as Gropecunt Lane, and the etymology of “threadneedle” is thought to be a euphemism for the activity most associated with the locale. It is perhaps then ironic that it would later become so closely associated with such a different breed of fucker.
A political cartoon by James Gillray, published in 1797, popularly characterised the Bank as “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street”. It personified the financial institution as an old dame with a dress made of pound notes, being roughly manhandled by a predatory caricature of the then-prime minister William Pitt the Younger. The image has since become a recurrent motif of political satire concerning the Bank. The ancestral wealth of the land endlessly pillaged and exploited by a succession of nefarious suitors. Nothing much changes in a bad house. The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street still on her knees, forced to turn tricks at gunpoint. Her weary body the property of an exclusive members club with tastes that run to the cruel and unusual.
Pot-bellied goblins in gaudy pin-stripe, faces flushed red with gout, loom over her crumpled frame for another harrowing turn. Attack-dog-eyed youths with slicked-back hair stride purposefully around the square mile beneath over-sized umbrellas emblazoned with corporate sigils. Astral parasols to ward off not just the rain and strain of nature, but other more abstract vexations such as personal responsibility or a sense of human decency. Aspirational blue chip self-starters, desperately trying to look assertive to their masters, in the hope that they might one day get some of that old pussy for themselves. The Old Lady’s degradation prolonged for centuries now, amplified to a fever pitch as her bones are picked clean in one final, gruesome feeding frenzy.
City adepts trade in cryptic thaumaturgy, charting esoteric fluctuations and manipulating arcane instruments to pillage and exploit without limit. Wicked magi peer greedily from the upper levels of dreadful, impossible towers. Steep Lovecraftian angles and diabolical geometry dominate the skyline, making a mockery of the landscape. A collision of vulgur, thrusting developments assembled to magnify the looming sense of oppression. Dabbling in the blood of the ancestors to line offensively-tailored pinstripe pockets. Each year, the meaning of value itself is further abstracted. No longer based on grain, no longer based on gold. It is taken further away from anything you can touch or hold in your palm. Pure number, pure idea, with nothing to underpin it. Economies of debt and hypothetical assets. A shadow-play of increasingly abstruse financial instruments that masks a crude snatch-and-grab. Desecrating the dead, ravaging the land, and selling out the unborn for temporal profit. But this is not the only game in town.
Other Societies hold sway. Our blessed dead are on the march. Cemetery Barons bow to no earthly authority, and by their mystery entrenched positions may be upturned. The wheel rotates and kings are made pauper. The pauper is made king. Ghede dances the banda through the Mansion House and the Royal Exchange. Step in time. Chim-chim-cheroo. The Man in the Black Hat shakes the palace and transgresses the iron doors of the Bank. In 1836, the Governor of the Bank of England received an anonymous letter from a mysterious personage claiming to have access to the bullion vaults. The letter writer offered to demonstrate this claim by meeting a party from the Bank deep in the vaults at an hour of their choosing. At midnight, the intruder revealed himself as a sewerman who had found a disused tunnel that led directly into the Bank, and speculated that the labyrinthine complex may yet harbor further forgotten openings. No matter how much iron, how many cameras, or how many guns are brought to bear, the law of entropy will win out. All things tend towards a right fucking shambles. There is always a potential for change.
Something in the land seethes with fury and demands to be given voice. The crossroads territory in front of the Bank frequently serves as a theatre for this protest. Impromptu soundsystems and carnival performance. African drums refixed with dubstep bass shudder and masked MCs chatting vitriol and hope. Long-forgotten magic, buried centuries-deep, winds its way up from the soil of history. Neglected spirits, shoved down into the recesses of ancestral memory, claw their way out of tombstone retirement to have their say. Ye Olde English Egungun take to the streets, given shape and form by accidental mummers barely aware of the dead mounting their heads. Teenage guisers responding to some nameless call and instinctively taking on the apparel of Jack-in-the-green, the raggedy man, the soot-faced chimney sweep, the hobby horse. Old ghosts of England that will not be put to rest when there’s work to be done. Enacting a drama on the front steps of the Bank, a chilling satire that cuts to the core, gets inside your head and doesn’t let up. Like the scathing street theatre of the Ghede who march on All Soul’s Day in Haiti. Resplendent in top hat and tails, poking fun at the aristocracy, mocking crooked politicians and lampooning corrupt power structures. Their comedy and clowning has a bitter edge and stings with the knowing grin of death itself, taunting would-be masters of the universe with the cold facts of their own impermanence and the impending final kiss goodnight. You next.
On April Fool’s Day 2009, four theatrical parades representing the horsemen of the apocalypse embarked on processional routes, beginning at locations of significance in the city and converging at the crossroads outside the Bank of England. Here an effigy of a City banker was hanged on a makeshift gallows and placed inside a miniature coffin. At the crescendo of the ritual, a jazz band produced brass instruments and performed a New Orleans-style second line funeral for an unsustainable ideology living on borrowed time.
Her voice beckons, difficult to hear above the noise and tumult, the whir of helicopter and spectacle of flare and smoke bomb. Listen carefully and the Siren song leads you back along the course of the Walbrook. During archeological excavations in the 19th century, over one hundred human skulls, and almost no other bones, were discovered at the bed of the Walbrook. The grisly deposits are thought to be a remnant of a pre-Roman cult of the head, either given to the river as a votive offering or as part of a pagan funerary practice. Another theory dates the skulls to Boudica’s rebellion of AD60, when the wronged Queen of the Iceni tribe of Britain led a revolt against the Roman occupation and burned the settlements of Colchester and Londinium to the ground, executing thousands along the way. Uniting the disenfranchised tribes, Boudica’s army almost succeeded in persuading Rome to abandon the country entirely. Ritual decapitation was a traditional British practice, and its use as a calling card of the Iceni was perhaps a gruesome way of signaling to the oppressor that the indigenous culture of the land had not been forgotten.
On the west bank of the Walbrook is the original location of the Roman Temple to Mithras, unearthed in 1954 during the building of Bucklesbury House. Mithraism was a Roman mystery religion that flourished between 1AD and 4AD, and was a competitor to early Christianity. Popular among soldiers, it was carried throughout the Roman empire and became established in London. Little is known about the religion as its rites were a closely-guarded secret and passed on through seven grades of initiation corresponding to the seven classical planets. The central image of the cult was the tauroctony, equivalent to the scene of the crucifixion in Christianity. It is a tableau that depicts the god Mithras slaying a bull that he has subdued and lured to an underground cavern. It seems somehow apt that an aggressive, militaristic, and apparently male-dominated cult that worships the image of a bull should have thrived in London’s financial district, given the bull’s status as symbolic animal of finance. The rites of Mithraism took place in similar subterranean enclosures to the scene of the tauroctony, and the temple at Walbrook is such an example. Alongside the iconography of Mithras, statues of Isis, Serapis, Mercury and Minerva were excavated from the temple, finds which speak of the local powers worshipped in the area.
The statues are now housed in the Museum of London, and the foundations of the temple itself uprooted and relocated to nearby Queen Victoria Street. For decades, the unearthed stones of Mithras have been a curious sight. Secret initiatory catacombs dug up and displaced halfway up the road in front of the car park of an office block. To the throngs of city workers who scuttle past it, too busy or indifferent to slow down and read the explanatory sign, it just looks like an odd rock garden with a fence around it. Bucklesbury House itself is now on the verge of demolition, along with the other aging office buildings surrounding the site of the Mithraeum. The barriers of the construction site obfuscate the ruins so that you can’t even see it from street level anymore, and an observer would have to know it was there and climb up some steps to get a glimpse.
In 2006, Legal & General, the most recent occupiers of Bucklesbury House, announced plans for a ‘Walbrook Square’ development that would again relocate the Temple of Mithras to be the arty centre-piece of a new business complex in the area. The plans stalled in 2008, following the financial crisis, when the money ran out and the project’s backers got cold feet, and the fate of the area remains uncertain. However, it’s perhaps only a matter of time before Goldman Sachs announce their new UK corporate headquarters enclosing Stonehenge, or the Cerne Abbas Giant is rebranded the Barclays Giant and used as the floor-plan for a call centre.
While it is commendable that these fragments of history are not being demolished wholesale to make way for functional office floorspace, the Walbrook Square development is an implicit recontextualizing of once-magical space and symbolic of a broader corporate annexation of our landscape and its meaning. The private, internal relationships that we may develop with a site come under some level of psychic assault when that site is rebranded as a corporate object d’art. There is something odd in our culture that, two-thousands years later, we decide to repurpose what was originally intended as an intensely secretive initiatory chamber into a strange form of public sculpture for people to gaze at while they are eating their sandwiches.
What is under attack is perhaps not simply the magical integrity of the Temple of Mithras, long dormant and cryptic in meaning as it is, but the notion of sacred space itself. The idea that there are places and things in the landscape that can have meaning, beyond their decorative usage in the grounds of corporate office complexes. A sophisticated black art is employed to colonise our internal psychogeographic models of the world, in addition to the physical environment itself. The sacred landscape stripped of its value and significance, and reimagined as a marketable way to sell a product or promote a brand.
At the junction of Walbrook and Cannon Street stands one of the most contemptible statues in London. Erected in 1997, the LIFFE trader statue is a grotesque life-size effigy of an 1980s city trader replete with over-sized mobile phone and London International Financial Futures and Options Exchange name-tag. It has become a London tradition to spit on the cityboy for luck, and on any given weekday his sneering, punchable visage can be seen glazed with the spittle of disgruntled Londoners expressing their contempt for the profession. Under a dark Moon and at certain opportune times of the year, the statue can be seen tagged with cursing witch signs, a noose hung around its neck, and goofer dust sprinkled about its feet. The bone has been pointed. The chicken foot is on the doorstep. You next.
Article by Stephen Grasso
A printed version of this article – distilled into potent shot glass form – appears in The Wanton Green, a collection of essays on the magic of place, edited by Gordon Maclellan and Susan Cross, and published by Mandrake of Oxford. All author royalties have been donated to Honouring the Ancient Dead, a British network organisation that advocates respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts.
Click here to download Stephen Grasso’s accompanying mix (below). A shout out to Chris Josiffe for suggesting some of the financial reggae tracks that got this mix started.