London Stories, a Rich and Complex Tapestry

I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.

Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…

French Huguenots' houses Spitalfields
French Huguenots’ houses Spitalfields

I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands;  foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;

The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London
The grand room that the governors met in, Foundling Hospital, London

and stories of the disabled ex-sailors, some as young as 12, who were looked after according to a strict regime in the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich.

Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich
Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich

I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition:  the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.

anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war
anglo saxon kingdoms, art, word, war

So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers,  the ministers, the politicians,  and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town

In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.

People of Inspiration: JK Rowling

I’ve long admired JK Rowling, and not simply because she’s one of the world’s most successful contemporary authors.

JK Rowling
JK Rowling

Although it’s true I love all the Harry Potter novels, and followed the stories as each was published, and saw every film as it was released, I have special reasons for finding JK Rowling a source of inspiration.

I feel that in her HP series she has gathered up many of the greatest treasures of world folklore and mythology into a new creation that stands as a reference point in itself.  Her imagined world has entered our consciousness. For instance, a few days ago I was in a boarding school looking at an ornate list of names on the wall and I immediately thought of Hogwarts’ Past Headmasters. Another recent example was my visit to Ham House, Richmond; whilst studying one of the many portraits, I half expected the lady in the portrait to shout, “Password!” at me.

And I have on a number of occasions found myself in conversation with someone, saying things like, “Oh, I wish I had Hermione’s Time-Turner” or “I could do with Hermione’s bottomless bag”, certain that the person I was speaking to would immediately know what I meant.

I’ve only recently read the book Very Good Lives which is JK Rowling’s speech to Harvard graduates in 2008.  And for the first time I discovered she had worked in Amnesty International during her early twenties. As she described her experiences in Amnesty International’s offices, I could see at once the influence this had had on the Harry Potter stories – Dolores Umbridge cruelly punishing Harry, Voldemort torturing then executing Charity Burbridge, Lucius Malfoy and his abusive relationship with Dobby (before he became a free elf, of course), and of course many other examples.

It also amused me to read of how JK Rowling had chosen to study Classics, against her parents’ wishes, as they thought it a subject that could never lead to a decent job that would never pay a mortgage let alone secure a pension.

I could also see very clearly why JK Rowling felt she had to write The Casual Vacancy. I identified with and recognised what she wrote about in its pages.

I find JK Rowling inspiring not only as a successful author, but also for her own personal qualities. In this world we often see the power that great wealth bestows concentrated in the hands of the wrong people. To my mind, we can be very thankful that JK Rowling is one of the people in whose hands that power is concentrated.

It is clear from her Harvard speech where her heart lies, despite all her wealth and success: Poverty is not an ennobling experience… I am not going to tell you failure is fun… but failure means a stripping away of the inessentials… I stopped pretending I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…. Failure gave me an inner security I never attained by passing exams… I discovered that I had a strong will and more discipline than I’d suspected.

I must admit that after reading her Harvard speech I do wonder how many of those young graduates she spoke to went away and subsequently empathised with the poorest in the world, and lobbied their government to change its polices? For that was what JK Rowling urged them to do.

Meanwhile, all we who admire  and love the Harry Potter stories, can be very glad that JK Rowling, in defiance of her parents’ wishes, ‘nipped off down the Classics corridor’ to study a useless subject that  nobody ever believed would win her a job.