Why? well they have to live somewhere. A city living in its own afterlife. Why not?
The streets of London are stone synapses hardwired for worship. Walk the right or the wrong way down Tooting Bec you’re invoking something or other. You may not be interested in the gods of London but they’re interested in you.
And where gods live there are knacks, and money, and rackets. Halfway-house devotional murderers, gun-farmers and self-styled reavers. A city of scholars, hustlers, witches, popes and villains. – China Miéville. Kraken.
Because it was on my old laptop, I rewatched Sweeney Todd on the flight back from Australia. And while it probably wouldn’t make a top ten list for films about London, the underlying story certainly says a lot about the city.
The first thing it says, in a very Batman way, is that cities get the heroes they deserve. From Sondheim’s 1979 musical:
There’s a hole in the world like a great black pit
and the vermin of the world inhabit it
and its morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit
and it goes by the name of London.
At the top of the hole sit the privileged few
Making mock of the vermin in the lonely zoo
turning beauty to filth and greed…
I too have sailed the world and seen its wonders,
for the cruelty of men is as wonderous as Peru
but there’s no place like London!
The surprise success of a musical about an amoral serial killer, indiscriminately murdering London’s citizens after having his entire life crushed by the arbitrary whims of its elite is not so surprising in retrospect. You only need to look at who moved into Downing Street that same year. London was again gearing up to do what London does best/worst.
The London Stone. That old rock was always suspiciously near the centre of things. A chunk of the Millarium, the megalith-core from where the Romans measured their distances. Trusting in that old rock was a quaint or dangerous tradition, depending on to whom you spoke. The London Stone was a heart. Did it still beat?
Yes, it still beat, though it was sclerotic… This had been the seat of sovereignty, and it cropped up throughout the city’s history if you knew where to look. Jack Cade touched his sword to the London Stone when claiming grievances against the king: that was what gave him the right to speak, he said, and others believed. Did he wonder why it had turned on him afterwards? Perhaps after the change in his fortunes, his head looked down from the pike on the bridge, seen his quartered body parts taken for national gloating, and wryly thought, So, London Stone, to be honest I’m getting mixed messages here… Should I in fact maybe not lead the rebels?
But forgotten, hiding, camouflaged or whatever, the Stone was the heart, the heart was stone, and it beat from its various places, coming to rest at last here in an insalubrious sports shop between cricket equipment. – China Miéville. Kraken.
The capital’s application of power has always been supremely arbitrary and extremely top-heavy. Few people realise that the Queen, completely bypassing whoever happens to be running Canada that week, can technically just pick up a presumably-jewel-encrusted telephone in the middle of the night and call the head of the Canadian Air Force -the clue is in the ‘R’ at the front- and say “bomb Detroit. One wishes to know how long it will take the Americans to notice. Philip thinks a week and if he’s right I have to give back Gibraltar.”
The Londonmancers had been there since Gogmagog and Corineus, since Mithras and the rest. Like their sibling chapters in other psychopoli, the Paristurges (Dane had carefully pronounced it to Billy French-wise, pareetourdzh), the Warsawtarchs, the Berlinmagi, they had always been ostentatiously neutral. That was how they could survive.
Not custodians of the city: they called themselves its cells. They recruited young and nurtured hexes, shapings, foresight and the diagnostic trances they called urbopathy. They, they insisted, were just conduits for the flows gathered by the streets. They did not worship London but held it in respectful distrust, channelled its needs, urges and insights.
You couldn’t trust it. It wasn’t one thing, for a start -though it also was- and it didn’t have one agenda. A gestalt metropole entity, with regions like Hoxton and Queen’s Park cosying up to the worst power, Walthamstow more combatively independent, Holborn vague and sieve-leaky, all of them bickering components of a totality, a London something, seen. –China Miéville. Kraken.
At the beginning of her reign, Victoria’s London was around a million people. By the time she died, greater London had grown to over six million people. It was the fastest instance of urbanisation in history, up until China in the last ten years, and it remains the largest ever relative to the indigenous population. (Not counting the rest of the empire.) The goods pouring into the Port of London in 1880 amounted to 8 million tonnes, up by a factor of ten from the beginning of the century.
London was, in a very real sense, The Devourer. It absorbed the youth of the British hinterlands, breaking families in the name of its belching factories, a monstrous centre of gravity, pulling in regional and agrarian economies. It was so big it defied any attempts to conceive of it. Are there this many people in the whole world? What are they even eating?
Rumours flared of cannibal pie shops and dodgy butchers, a lack of comprehension that persists to this day when you order a kebab in a filthy part of town you’ve never been before. Mystery meat. It’s probably not human, but it’s definitely not lamb.
Sometimes, of course, these stories turn out to be less horseshit and more horse meat, just as they were back then. These were stories told in Lincolnshire and Powys. They put cats in their pies. Sometimes orphans, probably. That’s London. You may accidentally eat the wrong pie, or even end up in a worse one. People vanished all the time. The murders of poor people went uninvestigated. The legend typifies the anxiety surrounding the huge socioeconomic changes the Victorians were experiencing; in this new world, you were only one false step away from the workhouse.
For what’s the sound of the world, out there?
Those crunching noises pervading the air.
It’s man devouring man, my dear.
And so there are parts of the story of the demon barber of Fleet Street that exist at that murky intersection between folklore and oral history. But what of the man himself?
Many people are still convinced that Todd’s crimes were as real as those of Jack the Ripper. The facts, however, are somewhat different.
The story begins in the 1830s with one Edward Lloyd, an enterprising publisher of ‘penny dreadfuls’ who aimed his cheap weekly serials squarely at the working poor. Titles like ‘The Calendar of Horrors’ and ‘Varney the Vampire’ (a famous blood-sucking fiend, 50 years before Dracula) give some idea of his subject matter. He also specialised in pirated versions of Dickens’ works at a time when copyright law counted for little. Thus poorer readers could buy a budget copy of his ‘Oliver Twiss’ or ‘Nikelas Nickelbery’. Lloyd would later found a radical/liberal newspaper and become quite respectable. [More.]
A pirate. But of course. Very Mr Depp. Llyod’s Sweeney Todd first appeared in his The String of Pearls, complete with all the pieces we know from later iterations of the tale: the chair the dumps his victims into the bakehouse of a pie shop, a misused orphan, Mrs Lovett herself.
It was initially serialised in a magazine of the day and became so successful that a theatrical version had begun to be penned before the ending was even revealed. We don’t really have a cultural corollary for these serials today, but you will recall that when Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes fell off the Reichenbach Falls to his ‘death’, City workers came into town the next day wearing black armbands. Sweeney Todd lived in a lot of heads.
This was before Jack the Ripper, before Spring-Heeled Jack, but they were all a type of thing that could happen in London. Some of them even did. As Tolkien wrote, “myths describe things that never happen but always are.” Sweeney Todd became the sort of thing that comes along with urbanisation, as well as its inevitably vengeful blowback.
The history of the world, my love
Is those down below serving those up above.
How gratifying for once to know,
That those up above will serve those down below.
And so, much like Lovecraft’s circle of friends and his Cthulhu Mythos, before Lloyd had even finished with the story, it had got away from him. It had things to do and places to go. It made it to America. By 1892, it had even made it to Sydney, in the form of a poem I learned in primary school, The Man From Ironbark.
It was the man from Ironbark who struck the Sydney town,
He wandered over street and park, he wandered up and down.
He loitered here, he loitered there, till he was like to drop,
Until at last in sheer despair he sought a barber’s shop.
“‘Ere! shave my beard and whiskers off, I’ll be a man of mark,
I’ll go and do the Sydney toff up home in Ironbark.”
The barber man was small and flash, as barbers mostly are,
He wore a strike-your-fancy sash, he smoked a huge cigar;
He was a humorist of note and keen at repartee,
He laid the odds and kept a “tote”, whatever that may be,
And when he saw our friend arrive, he whispered, “Here’s a lark!
Just watch me catch him all alive, this man from Ironbark.”
There were some gilded youths that sat along the barber’s wall.
Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all;
To them the barber passed the wink, his dexter eyelid shut,
“I’ll make this bloomin’ yokel think his bloomin’ throat is cut.”
And as he soaped and rubbed it in he made a rude remark:
“I s’pose the flats is pretty green up there in Ironbark.”
A grunt was all reply he got; he shaved the bushman’s chin,
Then made the water boiling hot and dipped the razor in.
He raised his hand, his brow grew black, he paused awhile to gloat,
Then slashed the red-hot razor-back across his victim’s throat:
Upon the newly-shaven skin it made a livid mark –
No doubt it fairly took him in – the man from Ironbark.
He fetched a wild up-country yell might wake the dead to hear,
And though his throat, he knew full well, was cut from ear to ear,
He struggled gamely to his feet, and faced the murd’rous foe:
“You’ve done for me! you dog, I’m beat! one hit before I go!
I only wish I had a knife, you blessed murdering shark!
But you’ll remember all your life the man from Ironbark.”
He lifted up his hairy paw, with one tremendous clout
He landed on the barber’s jaw, and knocked the barber out.
He set to work with nail and tooth, he made the place a wreck;
He grabbed the nearest gilded youth, and tried to break his neck.
And all the while his throat he held to save his vital spark,
And “Murder! Bloody murder!” yelled the man from Ironbark.
A peeler man who heard the din came in to see the show;
He tried to run the bushman in, but he refused to go.
And when at last the barber spoke, and said “‘Twas all in fun—
‘Twas just a little harmless joke, a trifle overdone.”
“A joke!” he cried, “By George, that’s fine; a lively sort of lark;
I’d like to catch that murdering swine some night in Ironbark.”
And now while round the shearing floor the list’ning shearers gape,
He tells the story o’er and o’er, and brags of his escape.
“Them barber chaps what keeps a tote, By George, I’ve had enough,
One tried to cut my bloomin’ throat, but thank the Lord it’s tough.”
And whether he’s believed or no, there’s one thing to remark,
That flowing beards are all the go way up in Ironbark.
Pretty sure this isn’t a false memory, but I remember my teacher saying the story was based on a famous murderer from London. Sweeney Todd had become an echo of an echo of an echo of Things That Happened, some of which probably did. Here, you see it retains that regional suspicion of urban people and places, and the need to keep your wits about you, whilst still offering a meta perspective on urban legends and the real impact they can have.
Clattering shapes came out of the store doorway behind them. There were composite things, made of city. Paper, brick, slate, tar, road sign and smell. One’s motion was almost arthropod, one more bird, but neither was like anything. Legs of scaffold tubes or girder, wood splinter arms; one had a dorsal fin of broken glass in cement, cheval-de-frise. Billy cried out at the mongrel urban things. One took hold with autumn-gutter fingers of the closest attacker and bit exactly as a rooftop bites. He screamed but it sucked him, so he kicked as he was emptied. His colleague ran. Somewhere.
Both the Londonmancers were shot dead. Saira clenched her teeth. The predator city bits came toward her. “Quick,” Billy shouted, but she clicked her fingers as if at dogs.
“It’s alright,” she said. “They’re London’s antibodies. They know me.” – China Miéville. Kraken.
Back in the capital, the demon barber eventually lent his name to The Flying Squad, a group of twelve Scotland Yard detectives kitted out with the best technology of their day (carriages), and charged with mobile investigations of London’s ne’er-do-wells, pickpockets and whores. They were to get their hands dirty and quietly deliver barbershop justice. You may know them better from the TV show, The Sweeney. (Sweeney Todd being rhyming slang for Flying Squad.)
The Demon Barber of Fleet Street isn’t a god the way Lugh is a god (but is pretty close to the way Baphomet is). The phenomenon is more of a star nursery… something we can observe which deepens our analysis of stellar bodies.
In the previous 180 years, it has picked up Freudian fears of being eaten, genuine incidents of High Strangeness, a sense of and reaction to a very specific place, tales told in whispers or sung on stages, alignment with observed modern and ancient history, the desire for vengeance in a patently unjust world, the sheer arbitrariness of fate, culture-specific manifestations around the world… and that overall eeriness that results when you sense folklore is trying to tell you something. Sweeney Todd exists entirely in one’s head. Except for the bits that don’t.
Sweeney Todd: You have a room over the shop, don’t you? If times are so hard, why don’t you rent it out?
Mrs. Lovett: People think it’s haunted.
Sweeney Todd: Haunted?
Mrs. Lovett: Yeah. And who’s to say they’re wrong? You see, years ago, something happened up there. Something not very nice.
Who’s to say they are wrong, indeed.