Finding the Gold in Hackney

Bookcrawl group Broadway Bookshop.jpg
Bravo for books, like these ones on Broadway (Market).

William Blake has been referred to as the start ‘original psychogeographer’. In 2019, in conjunction with artist Louisa Albani, Hackney Tours will be focusing on Blake as an inspiration and as a prism with which to view the London we inhabit now.

Kicking off these events was a Books and Art crawl for London Bookshop Weekend, visiting three independent bookstores in Hackney and the rich repository of history and ideas that is Abney Park Cemetery.

A band of a fellow travellers – curious Londoners who wished to delve beneath the superficial and explore the layers of literature and debate that we walk upon each day in Hackney – joined myself for an exploration of how William Blake can help us interpret the present and an unusual art show of Louisa’s works in an unlikely location.

Blake Jerusalem Louisa image St Pauls annotated

Last year we celebrated Frankenstein’s 200th anniversary and this year we celebrated William Blake and his particular way of looking the world. A common thread running through the walks and talks is the radical history of Hackney writers, many of them women who would still be ahead of their time even now (e.g. polymath Mary Wollstonecraft). They risked everything, inviting calumny from the mainstream as they put forward many of the notions that we largely take for granted today.

Hackney Tours have a reputation for becoming at times a little discursive. But events in Hackney have links to some of the turning points in British, European and even world history; it’s interesting to follow the roots of the Hackney rhizome outwards and see how they connect.

Picking up a politics book in Pages copy
Politics in Pages of Hackney.

When you do, you see how what was discussed and debated here had implications for the rights of the individual and even our notions of who we are as human beings. Meetings and conversations here have been the inspiration behind the political systems of the world’s most powerful nations too. The fortunes of empires rose and fell with the intellectual input of people who either lived in or visited Hackney.

In an age where we are becoming increasingly aware of the damage we have done to the environment and flying abroad regularly to find wonder is problematical, can the likes of visionary prophet William Blake help us to discover another state of being on our own doorstep? Can an artist denounced as mad 200 years ago help us to tackle our most pressing issues today?

(See #ExtraordinaryE5 for a hyper-local experiment in finding the wondrous amid the everyday)

There are some interesting parallels with Brexit too, when we look at the controversies of the late 18th century. A polarised country looked to France with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Ideas of personal virtue, self improvement and societal equality that were championed by those who were optimistic about human nature were contested in the noosphere by others who believed that human beings were inherently bad and the best way to control them was to preserve the status quo. The French Revolution still casts a shadow today – and Hackney authors were there to witness and comment upon it.

Group looks at Louisa art Abney small
Loving Angels instead…

Despite the fact that William Blake is a household name and that the Tate Britain will hold a large exhibition of his works this September, there was a lot of walking discovery going on that afternoon as we explored Hackney through time and space.

For me, William Blake is all about an alternative way of seeing the world, or rather alternative ways (plural). If you’ve seen the #HackneyDifferent hashtag on social media, then you’ll know that this is a common theme running – or rather walking – through Hackney Tours. They have evolved over time since their inception in 2012 when I explored the hidden corners of the Olympic project and local issues the national media largely ignored.

This year I will be using Bring Your Own Blake (see #BringYourOwnBlake) to celebrate that little bit of Blake inside all of us, but also to acknowledge that whenever we talk about William Blake we bring a whole host of preconceptions: our own personal interpretation of what he means and what his legacy is. And of course who he’s been mediated by, from Melvyn Bragg to Iain Sinclair. Or myself…

As we finished walking and talking Hackney that day and we stood in the last of the indie bookshops, I asked if anybody would be taking anything particular from our mini adventure? One person said, pithily: “From now on I will be looking for the gold, in a city that is broken.” That sentence was gold itself. Job done.

Blake book in Stoke Newington bookshop
The good stuff, in Stoke Newington Bookshop.

#BringYourOwnBlake is designed from the start to be collaborative because, even though I have been exploring Hackney and its stories for a decade now and have much to share, I’m aware that other people have their own knowledge, ideas and thoughts. When we put these together, bouncing off each other and catalysing tiny epiphanies in the large Hackney collider of the collective imagination, we can create something that is so much more rich than just me talking at people?

Blake loved to watch children play: “That is heaven.” And that day as we talked about ideas, picked them up, held them up to the light and examined them, we were engaged in a form of philosophical Play. So if you want to immerse yourself in a river of radical and reforming literary consciousness, join me for future literary walks in Hackney. (Contact form here).

To see more of the art of Louisa Albani and her projects featuring romantic authors and William Blake, click here.

Thanks for having us Stoke Newington Bookshop, fellow East End Trades Guild members Pages of Hackney and Broadway Bookshop and as always thanks to the trust and volunteers of Abney Park Cemetery who do such a marvellous job of looking after one of the best spots in Hackney. Half the proceeds from this walk went to Abney Park Cemetery and also the Mary on the Green campaign which is organising the first monument to the Enlightenment icon Mary Wollstonecraft at Newington Green, which played such an important role in the development of the ‘founder of modern feminism’.

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