Seers and psychics: Welcome to occult London

SINCE the 17th century, the narrow streets and alleys on the northern fringe of Covent Garden have been the lair of seers, psychics, stargazers and all manner of occult devotees.

The theory is that they were drawn there by the mystically star-shaped junction of Seven Dials where seven streets converge at a Doric obelisk topped by six sundials. The column itself served to cast the shadow of a seventh dial. The local French refugee community dubbed it La Pyramide.

The entrepreneur and MP Thomas Neale had opted for the novel street layout in the 1690s for the very unmystical reason that he wanted to maximise the frontages, and hence the rent of the properties he was building there for prosperous new residents.

The more expansive Covent Garden square nearby had been built some years earlier “fitt for the habitacions of Gentlemen and men of ability” and the developers were moving to cash in on the adjacent farmland.

It was only in recent decades that archaeologists determined that the neighbourhood was built on the site of the ancient settlement of Lundenwic, founded by the pagan Anglo-Saxons in the 7th century. Perhaps the invaders brought their witches with them.

Seven Dials and Covent Garden in general have had a chequered history since Neale’s time but the area never shed its association with the occult.

Wealthy 18th century Londoners didn’t really take to it – maybe it was the spooky vibes. Within a century, Seven Dials had become the city’s most notorious gin-sodden slum where street vagrants now rubbed shoulders with the diviners and the astrologers.

There’s a myth that a mob of local toughs tore down the obelisk in 1773 in search of hidden gold. In fact, London’s Paving Commissioners ordered its removal because the central island it occupied had become “a rendezvous for blackguards and chimney-sweepers”. A replacement copy of the original was unveiled only in 1989.

At around the time the obelisk came down, the nearby Freemasons’ Hall was just opening up as heaquarters of the United Grand Lodge of England. Its modern fortress-like 1930s replacement still surveys the neighbourhood like an all-seeing eye.

For decades Seven Dials mouldered in obscurity on the fringe of Covent Garden market and London’s theatreland.

Our wrinklier readers will remember when Covent Garden was the city’s central fruit, veg and flower market until its closure in 1974. In its dying days, Alfred Hitchcock filmed Frenzy there, a contemporary thriller set among the potato sacks and the apple crates. Barry Foster plays wholesale merchant and serial killer Bob Rusk, known as the “necktie murderer” for his favoured method of dispatching his women victims.

Mercifully, the planners preserved the market infrastructure of Covent Garden square, declaring it a “piazza”. Designer shops, bars and cafes were soon to replace the old wholesale stores.

The gentrification seeped into Seven Dials, with the arrival of boutiques and cocktails and artesan coffee.

But the old ways perist. Tucked between the shoe shops and the parfumeries are occult bookshops and others that offer healing crystals and astrological paraphenalia. There are meeting rooms where clairvoyants and mediums ply their trade.

In an eerily quiet Covent Garden, they’re all shut down now by a pandemic none of the fortune-tellers appears to have predicted. They are offering virtual sessions via Zoom, although surely telepathy would be more appropriate.

It’s all very New-Agey and harmless these days. But the once notorious neighbourhood has had reminders of its darker occult past.

In the late-1990s a troubled and homeless drifter became one of the many street-sleepers camped out on the city streets. In his early fifties, he had grown up suffering delusions and had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.

He had such an obsession with Aleister Crowley, the notorious 20th century occultist known as The Great Beast, that he had officially changed his surname to Crowley.

In Covent Garden he was befriended by a bright and sympathetic 12-year-old boy, half-Spanish, who lived in the neighbourhood. They used to hang out in Phoenix Gardens to play and chat.

But for Crowley, the friendship became an ever more demanding obsession. The boy, Diego Piniero-Pillar, became wary and took to avoiding his new friend. The police became involved but, although a harassment charge was pending, the drifter was out on bail.

One evening in May 2000, Crowley stalked Diego and his older brother while they were running an errand. He caught up with them by the obelisk on a corner of Seven Dials. He pulled out a kitchen knife and, with more than 20 blows, stabbed the younger boy to death.

A crumpled paper in Crowley’s bag bore scribblings about child sacrifice and the Latin inscription “Delendus est D. Piniero” – Piniero must be destroyed.

Parks and recreation: Chill out in London’s urban forests

I’M IN a quandary.

I had planned a column on the benefits of London’s parks in these challenging times and, in the process, to defend Matt Hancock’s decision to head off to his own local patch of green at the weekend for a kick-around with the kids.

If anyone needs a breath of fresh air to clear the cobwebs, it’s the Mattster.

Now it turns out our hard-pressed health minister has been pinged by the track-and-trace app after coming near to an unidentified plague carrier and will have to self-isolate for the rest of the week.

I just hope his too-close-for-comfort moment didn’t occur in crowded Queen’s Park on what the pops have dubbed “muddy Saturday” after boss Boris Johnson told Matt and all the rest of us to stay at home. The last thing we need is BoJo shutting down the parks.

Believe it or not, good old London is one of the world’s greenest cities. Its 35,000 acres of public parks, woodlands and gardens amount to 40 per cent of its surface area. It’s got so many trees, one for every Londoner, that it meets the UN definition of a forest.

Better still the greenery isn’t all in one place but democratically spread around, so that we all get to experience rus in urbe right on our doorsteps.

I don’t know Queens Park, where Matt was described by a witness as “covered head to toe in mud”. But it sounds fairly typical: trees, grass, a bandstand, flower gardens, a playground with a paddling pool.

Southwark Park, where I just took a lockdown stroll, ticks most of those familiar boxes. Plus it has a recently restored lake, populated by demanding wild fowl – ducks, coots, geese, swans and a solitary heron – all within 100 yards of the Lower Road pollution hotspot.

Potential visitors might like to know that it’s never crowded, most of the new-fangled outdoor gym gear lies largely idle at this time of year, and the jogger threat is low to moderate.

Many of London’s open spaces have been there forever. Invading Vikings once camped at what is now Greenwich Park, one of eight Royal parks, where Elizabeth I used to go hunting. Green Park was once a swamp that served as a burial ground for mediaeval lepers.

Other parks, however, are a more recent London legacy of the Victorians, along with the sewers, the bridges and the railways.

Southwark Park opened in 1869 on 63 acres to the west of Surrey Docks and south of the Thames at Rotherhithe. It’s got a running track, a bowling green, football pitches and the inevitable cafe.

There’s a memorial garden for Ada Salter, the Quaker and social reformer, whose husband Alfred set up a free health service in the area, a forerunner of the NHS as I’m sure Hancock would be interested to know.

It’s the sort of local park where generations of unaccompanied schoolkids were once allowed to run wild, in the days before anxious modern parents began to imagine that a paedophile or a drug-pusher lurked behind every bush.

Contrary to this paranoia, police stats show that crime in London parks is relatively low. Southwark Park’s last “brutal daylight revenge slaying” was more than two years ago.

In the old days, the kids and the criminals – often one and the same – were kept in check by Gestapo-like park keepers (they even wore brown uniforms) who would try to stay one step ahead of the miscreants.

Like most of modern life, London’s neighbourhood parks are now actually more sedate than they used to be and more geared to the keep-fitters and the “consumers”. There is an unwelcome trend to rent them out for music festivals and other events that squeeze out the locals.

Southwest Londoners have protested about plans to stage festivals in Brockwell park. “Brockwell Park is the beating heart of our community,” said one irate local. “It’s our living, open, green space. To take that away from us is wrong. To do that without the consent of the community is worse.”

The trouble is that too many politicians these days are uncomfortable with the idea of any communal facility that is either not owned by someone or fails to generate a profit. For them, a park is just so much unexploited development acreage.

We’re safe for now. But the price of freedom is eternal vigilance. When it comes to your local London park, it might be a question of use it or lose it.

On yer bike: a ‘local’ tour of historic Deptford

ON THIS week’s Hancock’s Half Hour, the health secretary explained that if you go for a long lockdown walk and end up seven miles from home “that is OK but you should stay local”. All clear now?

His intervention helpfully absolved Prime Minister Boris Johnson of scurrilous accusations that he broke the latest Covid restrictions by cycling from Downing Street to the Olympic Park, a 14-mile round trip.

It also came to a relief to me, concerned as I was that a recent round trip, six-mile pilgrimage to Deptford might have stretched the boundaries of some obscure sub-clause of the new 100-page instructions.

As officials struggled to define what constitutes a substantial walk, one minister underlined the gravity of the situation by saying we were facing another “Scotch egg moment”.

However, the Met Police chief, Dame Cressida Dick, offered further comfort when she clarified that “local” was a relative term.

Now that these procedural ambiguities have been resolved, I would urge all Londoners to get on your bikes or, like me, into your walking shoes to explore one of the most historic corners of their historic city. Just don’t all go at once.

In primary school, a couple of teachers who were local history buffs would help to reveal this cornucopia on our doorsteps and the characters who had once populated it: Peter the Great, the murdered playright Christopher Marlowe, the 17th century diarist John Evelyn, the Dutchman Gringling Gibbon, whose lost carvings at Deptford Church were said to have been so delicate that they rustled in the breeze.

It’s where Queen Elizabeth I knighted Francis Drake on the moored Golden Hind and where Captain Cook set out on his fateful third voyage aboard the Resolution.

The Deptford dockyard, founded in 1513 by Henry VIII, was once the largest naval dockyard in the world and continued turning out warships for 350 years. The maritime connection was maintained until 2000, when the last of the commercial docks at Convoys Wharf closed.

This illustrious history survives via a number of quirky memorials: a stranded anchor at the top of Deptford High Street, and a statue of the Russian czar Peter and one of his dwarves – apparently he collected them – at the mouth of Deptford Creek.

A gift from the people of Russia (today’s picture), the bronze of the pinheaded Peter and his short companion has been described as the strangest sculptures in London.

They told us at school that the czar worked anonymously in the Deptford dockyard. In fact, he came over on an official if anonymous trip in 1698 to get some dockyard ideas for St Petersburg, arriving with four chamberlains, three interpreters, two clocksmiths, a cook, a priest, six trumpeters, 70 soldiers, four dwarves and a monkey.

From the 19th century and into the 20th, Deptford underwent a steady decline and isolation, although the docks continued to provide work for many of the locals. At around the time the borough was subsumed into its blander neighbour, Lewisham, in 1965, a survey in the local paper found that a majority of Deptford women had never left the neighbourhood.

It’s still got a lively high street market, at least it was the other day when the Caribbean shops were stacking up the yams and peppers and the Kurdish fishmongers were hosing down their suspiciously exotic fish.

Deptford’s been gentrified-ish but not enough to spoil your visit. St Paul’s Church and the churchyard are worth a look, or at least would be if they hadn’t padlocked the bloody gates!

There was a quixotic plan at one time to build a cruise liner terminal next to Peter’s statue at the head of the creek. The Greater London Authority decided in 2005 that “a cruise liner terminal at the site was not considered to be appropriate at that time”. At least the planners get some things right.

Floreat Islington: Lockdown in luvvieland

ISLINGTON gets such a hard time from right-thinking commentators in the pro-Tory press, you can end up feeling sorry for it. Well, almost.

It’s become a cliché to describe this inner north London district as not so much a location as a state of mind, the epicentre of what the Daily Mail has identified as metropolitan elite “luvvieland”.

Over the decades of Islington’s gentrification, even the sociologists and anthropologists have got in on the act to study, to quote one of them, “the consequences of the manner in which the aspirational middle classes appear to be remaking inner London, displacing in the process traditional working class communities”.

In their seminal 2003 London Calling, academic duo Butler and Robson found that the residents of Barnsbury, one of Islington’s most chichi corners, were mainly graduates and professionals who inclined towards vegetarianism while shunning good old British food.

They tended to avoid car ownership but, if they lapsed, would opt for off-road, gas-guzzling SUVs. Well, you’ve got to get the kids to prep school somehow! Gin was found to be their favourite tipple, and the liberal Guardian their preferred daily read.

There wasn’t much evidence of these bourgeois Islington indigenes as I rounded the corner to The Angel station at the start of the latest lockdown. What greeted me was a contemporary urban tableau familiar to amblers across the capital: a masked guardian of the law remonstrating with a recalcitrant street-sleeper.

The usually bustling Upper Street and Chapel Market were almost deserted. Maybe the well-heeled locals are sheltering in their second homes in Tuscany or the Cotswolds. Or maybe they’re just hunkered down in their Georgian terraces, leaving nanny to run the errands.

Back in the mid-sixties, a first generation of middle-class incomers had only just begun ripping up the lino and sanding the floors in their bargain-priced former slums and ordering up the stripped pine fittings, Conran fabrics and Le Creuset pots with which to furnish them.

Enough fading terraces and squares had been spared by either the council estate builders or the blitz to make Islington a magnet for middle class regeneration.

Most had been built in the area’s 18th-19th century heyday as a rural-urban refuge for a previous elite as traditional market gardens gave way to elegant houses that provided an alternative to the crowded inner city. Musical halls, theatres and pleasure gardens followed. Even into the 20th century Islington attracted a lively literary and artistic set.

But the inter-war years confirmed its steady economic decline as much of the housing in London’s most densely populated borough was turned over to slum landlords and multi-occupation.

Despite the subsequent decades of gentrification, the borough is still a pretty mixed area with a high proportion of social housing, even if it does now have more vegan butchers than eel and pie shops.

The reason perhaps that it is so execrated by Middle England and the media loudmouths of the silent majority is its association with lefty-luvvie politics. Labour’s Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are said to have held a secret tryst at the Granita Restaurant in Upper Street to plot the future course of New Labour.

A decade later, Islington MP and resident Emily Thornberry took some serious flak after she dared to mock a true patriot who’d seen fit to deck the entire front of his house with St George’s flags.

“These metropolitan liberals are allergic to the ideals of patriotism and the self-reliant family,” railed former Islingtonian Harry Mount in the Daily Mail. “Politicians such as Emily Thornberry live a gilded life, utterly segregated from hard-working, working-class voters.”

Not everyone is a champagne socialist, of course. Boris Johnson lived in Islington for a decade until he dumped his £3.75 million Grade II-listed home and divvied up the proceeds with ex-wife Marina.

Tribune of the People Jeremy Corbyn is another local MP, although not known as a champagne quaffer.

The borough’s regeneration generation would have some justification in complaining that they have been reduced to a mere symbol of all the metropolitan hypocrises Middle England loves to hate.

That said, some may also recall that the first incomers were somewhat insenitive to the native proletarians they were displacing.

My favourite Islington story – stay with me here – comes from my time in Buenos Aires in the late 70s. A thrusting young executive had just been parachuted in to manage Reuters’ Latin American HQ and had invited half a dozen of us for an early evening cerveza to get to know “the team”.

Among our number was Ernie, a dimunitive and dapper Londoner who had been the bane of the London management in his role as a militant representative of one of the print unions. The bosses’ response had been to kick him upstairs into personnel, raise his salary and put him on a plane to Argentina.

The young thruster wanted to know about our lives back in Blighty and it came Ernie’s turn to tell him where he lived back home.

“Leytonstone,” says Ernie. “Leytonstone!”, came the disbelieving response. “Isn’t that out in Essex? How the hell do you get to work?”

Management boy interupted Ernie’s mumbled response by singing the praises of his home in Islington – the cosmopolitan artisan shops, the tree-lined squares, and all within walking distance of central London. Did Ernie know Islington?

“I was born and brought up there,” came the terse reply.

“You were born and brought up in Islington and you moved to Leytonstone! I cant believe it! Why?”

Ernie: “Cos cunts like you started movin’ in.”