Streets of the imagination

At the front of the crowd in the ‘Gordon riots’ of 1780, William Blake would have seen much that he recognised in the events of this summer, writes Mike Marqusee

October 13, 2011
7 min read


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.

Events over the summer brought to mind William Blake’s uncompromisingly angry poem ‘London’, written in the early 1790s under the impact of revolution in France and repression at home. The poet wanders ‘through the charter’d streets/near where the charter’d Thames does flow’, where he encounters signs of widespread distress. He hears the sound of ‘the mind-forg’d manacles’, the fears and prejudices that keep people in thrall to an unjust social system. Above all, he sees the exploitation of youth: chimney sweeps, soldiers, prostitutes – victims of state, church and commerce, Blake’s tyrannical trinity.

Blake called London’s streets ‘charter’d’ because so much of the city’s economic life was subject to ‘charters’ granting exclusive privileges to private corporations. In 1791, they had been denounced by Thomas Paine as ‘aristocratical monopolies’ because of which ‘an Englishman is not free of his own country; every one of those places presents a barrier in his way, and tells him he is not a freeman – that he has no rights.’

In ‘London’ Blake confronts what we would call today a privatised London (even the river), whose ultimate ghastly manifestation is prostitution. ‘But most through midnite streets I hear/The youthful harlot’s curse’ – the contractual commodification of desire, which serves, ironically, to spread sexually transmitted disease. Marriage and prostitution are daringly linked as the twin sides of a pervasive social hypocrisy. The poem ends with the chilling, terrifically compressed image of ‘the marriage hearse’, society’s primary institution damned as deadly.

All this from a walk around London, at that time the world’s largest and fastest-growing city. Nowhere else was there such a convergence of wealth and poverty; nowhere else was the market so ruthlessly dominant.

Lifelong Londoner

Blake was a lifelong Londoner. Along with Shakespeare, an adoptive Londoner, he is the least well travelled of all major English poets – venturing no further than the Thames estuary and the Sussex coast. As a journeyman engraver, he was one of many London artisans drawn to radical ideas in religion and politics, and from whose ranks the London Corresponding Society, Britain’s first plebeian political organisation, was formed in 1792.

Blake grew up in the London of ‘Wilkes and Liberty’ and always avowed himself ‘a Liberty Boy’. Like most London artisans he supported the American revolution. And when London exploded in five days of riots, the most extensive in the city’s history, in June 1780, he was there – at the front of the crowd, whether by accident or design.

The ‘Gordon Riots’ began in anti-Catholic demonstrations whipped up by the maverick MP George Gordon. In their initial phase, Catholic places of worship and businesses (mostly foreign merchants) were attacked, though no Catholics were killed. Soon the crowd, having mastered the streets, changed tack and targets, turning its ire on the Bank of England, the homes of judges (ransacking the mansion of the Lord Chief Justice), and above all the jails. They broke open crimping houses (where impressed sailors were confined), debtors’ hostels, and one after another all the city’s prisons, culminating in Newgate – the biggest and most notorious of them all, London’s Bastille. Hundreds of prisoners were released and the building was burnt to the ground.

According to Blake’s first biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, writing in the 1860s, Blake was minding his own business at his home in Soho when ‘Suddenly he encountered the advancing wave of triumphant blackguardism, and was forced (for from such a great surging mob there is no disentanglement) to go along in the very front rank and witness the storm and burning of the fortress-like prison.’ To which a London magistrate in 2011 would mutter ‘a likely story!’ before imposing a maximum sentence.

Which cause?

It took 10,000 troops to suppress the riots. Between three and four hundred rioters were killed; 450 were arrested; 25 hanged. How ‘political’ were these events? Who were the rioters and what did they seek?

In The London Hanged, Peter Linebaugh identifies diverse participants: apprentices, journeymen artisans, domestic servants, tripe-sellers, coffee house waiters, laundresses, seamstresses, as well as a number of African-Americans, ex-slaves who made up 6 to 7 per cent of London’s population. When Thomas Haycock, a waiter, was asked by a judge why he had rioted, he replied simply: ‘The cause.’ Which cause? Haycock explained: ‘There should not be a prison standing on the morrow in London.’

Blake was 23, had just completed his apprenticeship and commenced what would prove to be a deeply frustrating freelance career. In every respect he fitted the profile of the rioter and if he later recast his participation as involuntary, there is no doubt of the event’s impact on him. That year he first conceived the image later titled ‘Glad Day’ or ‘Albion Rose’ – in which a classically proportioned male youth springs majestically from the earth, embodying the exaltation and energy of liberation. Some time later he gave it the caption:

Albion rose from where he labour’d at the mill with slaves

Giving himself for the Nations he danc’d the dance of Eternal Death.

Blake was to live through decades of war and reaction. His hopes for public recognition and an escape from penury were repeatedly dashed. But he pursued his lonely prophetic vocation and continued to produce stunningly original poems and images. He spent his last years in a two room flat in an insalubrious tenement adjacent to where the Savoy Hotel now stands. The one redeeming feature was the small window that afforded a view of the ever-busy Thames.

To the end Blake remained responsive to London’s confused, generous, mean-minded, moody, all-powerful and impotent crowd, and to the hypocrisies of its rulers. ‘I behold London,’ he exclaimed, ‘a Human awful wonder of God!’ In his final masterpiece, ‘Jerusalem’, completed in 1820, Blake spoke of London’s unwilling warriors, the sailors in the crimping houses:

We were carried away in thousands from London; & in tens

Of thousands from Westminster & Marybone in ships closd up:

Chaind hand & foot, compelld to fight under the iron whips

Of our captains; fearing our officers more than the enemy.

City of the mind

For Blake, London is a psyche, a city of the mind. ‘My Streets are my Ideas of Imagination,’ he has it declare, ‘My Houses are Thoughts; my Inhabitants, Affections.’ It is both microcosm (of human civilisation) and macrocosm (containing many worlds). It exists everywhere and nowhere, always and never, like ‘Lambeth’s Vale/Where Jerusalem’s foundations began; where they were laid in ruins.’

In the rhythmic litanies of London place-names found in Blake’s later works, the poet traces the course of his giant visionary forms: from ‘Highgate’s heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar Hackney & Bow:/To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albions River/We builded Jerusalem . . .’

Out of familiar workaday London, Blake conjures a sanctified geography, treating the modern city and its neighbourhoods the way the bible treats ancient Palestine. He sees it as a decisive battleground in the epic spiritual-political struggle through which ‘intellectual war’ must overcome ‘corporeal war’. Here Los, the poet-prophet-blacksmith, labours at his forge. ‘On the banks of the Thames, Los builded Golgonooza’ – a multifaceted, jewel-like city of applied imagination, Blake’s capital of artisans. ‘In fears he builded it, in rage & in fury. It is the Spiritual Fourfold London: continually building & continually decaying desolate!’

Finally, Blake sees liberated London as a meeting-place for all that is human: ‘In the Exchanges of London every Nation walk’d/And London walk’d in every Nation, mutual in love & harmony.’

This is a defiantly republican London. A London without kings or priests or financiers or their ‘hirelings’, the publicists and apologists whom Blake reviled. A London of free labourers, in which individual and collective creativity flourish together, a city thriving off the dialectic of the one and the many.


Mike MarquseeMike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen

Short story: Syrenka
A short story by Kirsten Irving

Utopia: Industrial Workers Taking the Wheel
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry – and its lessons for today

Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant

Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’

Utopia: Daring to dream
Imagining a better world is the first step towards creating one. Ruth Potts introduces our special utopian issue

Utopia: Room for all
Nadhira Halim and Andy Edwards report on the range of creative responses to the housing crisis that are providing secure, affordable housing across the UK

A better Brexit
The left should not tail-end the establishment Bremoaners, argues Michael Calderbank

News from movements around the world
Compiled by James O’Nions

Podemos: In the Name of the People
'The emergence as a potential party of government is testament both to the richness of Spanish radical culture and the inventiveness of activists such as Errejón' - Jacob Mukherjee reviews Errejón and Mouffe's latest release

Survival Shake! – creative ways to resist the system
Social justice campaigner Sakina Sheikh describes a project to embolden young people through the arts

‘We don’t want to be an afterthought’: inside Momentum Kids
If Momentum is going to meet the challenge of being fully inclusive, a space must be provided for parents, mothers, carers, grandparents and children, write Jessie Hoskin and Natasha Josette

The Kurdish revolution – a report from Rojava
Peter Loo is supporting revolutionary social change in Northern Syria.

How to make your own media
Lorna Stephenson and Adam Cantwell-Corn on running a local media co-op

Book Review: The EU: an Obituary
Tim Holmes takes a look at John Gillingham's polemical history of the EU

Book Review: The End of Jewish Modernity
Author Daniel Lazar reviews Enzo Traverso's The End of Jewish Modernity

Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants
Ida-Sofie Picard introduces Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants – as told to Jenny Nelson

Book review: Angry White People: Coming Face to Face With the British Far-Right
Hilary Aked gets close up with the British far right in Hsiao-Hung Pai's latest release

University should not be a debt factory
Sheldon Ridley spoke to students taking part in their first national demonstration.

Book Review: The Day the Music Died – a Memoir
Sheila Rowbotham reviews the memoirs of BBC director and producer, Tony Garnett.

Power Games: A Political History
Malcolm Maclean reviews Jules Boykoff's Power Games: A Political History

Book Review: Sex, Needs and Queer Culture: from liberation to the post-gay
Aiming to re-evaluate the radicalism and efficacy of queer counterculture and rebellion - April Park takes us through David Alderson's new work.

A book review every day until Christmas at Red Pepper
Red Pepper will be publishing a new book review each day until Christmas

Book Review: Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics
'In spite of the odds Corbyn is still standing' - Alex Doherty reviews Seymour's analysis of the rise of Corbyn

From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation
'A small manifesto for black liberation through socialist revolution' - Graham Campbell reviews Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor's 'From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation'

The Fashion Revolution: Turn to the left
Bryony Moore profiles Stitched Up, a non-profit group reimagining the future of fashion

The abolition of Art History A-Level will exacerbate social inequality
This is a massive blow to the rights of ordinary kids to have the same opportunities as their more privileged peers. Danielle Child reports.

Mass civil disobedience in Sudan
A three-day general strike has brought Sudan to a stand still as people mobilise against the government and inequality. Jenny Nelson writes.

Mustang film review: Three fingers to Erdogan
Laura Nicholson reviews Mustang, Deniz Gamze Erguven’s unashamedly feminist film critique of Turkey’s creeping conservatism

What if the workers were in control?
Hilary Wainwright reflects on an attempt by British workers to produce a democratically determined alternative plan for their industry


6