I was sitting, with about 20 other people, in a 150 foot diameter brick cylinder sunk vertically 100 feet into the ground next to Rotherhithe station. It was cold, bleak, dimly lit and coated with soot - yet we had paid money for the privilege of being there. Our guide, in a bid to make us feel special, assured us we were “among the first” people to have been in that place in 145 years and that recently it had been ranked number three in the world’s top ten industrial heritage sites. He then told the story of how Marc Brunel and his son Isambard Kingdom Brunel (you couldn’t make it up) had, between 1825 and 1843, been the first ever to tunnel under a river inventing, in the process, methods and techniques of engineering which are still in use today.
It is not actually necessary to visit a historical site in order to comprehend its significance but in so doing there is a bonus to be had: a feeling of being part of the process by which past events shape future conditions. That same tunnel, which was built for horse-drawn goods wagons, is used now by trains which carry about nine million passengers a year under the river Thames. How many of them take the journey without realising that the tunnel, in its day, was considered to be the eighth wonder of the world?
I was sitting, with about 50 other people - a full-capacity audience - in a small theatre over a pub called The Rosemary Branch on the northern border of Hoxton. Theatre spaces such as this have a special intimacy which fosters interaction between all those present. Resources may be modest but the ingenuity with which they are employed is cause for admiration and, sometimes, amusement. A sense of sharing pervades the audience more readily than in larger, more formal theatres.
Half a dozen actors performed a witty and charming adaptation of Jane Austen’s novel Sense and Sensibility, a story very much of its time reflecting, as it does, the necessity for young, middle-class women to find husbands who can support them materially. Dramatic tension is introduced when their mission is complicated by the inconvenient but all too human tendency to fall in love inappropriately. Austen’s novel was published a decade before Messrs. Brunel began their tunnel and is evocative of social mores which disintegrated in the wake of such technological advances as they initiated.
I was sitting, with my friend and about 20 other people, in a former shop in deepest Shoreditch. It had been converted, at low cost, into a trendy pub/bar/restaurant (somebody, please, invent a name for such places). On our table was a ‘flight’ of locally-brewed ales for me to sample and a pint of ale of my friend’s choosing. This place, like others we visited that night, celebrates the revival of beers brewed locally and on a small scale. They are a welcome antidote to the dull homogeneity of taste perpetuated by global-reach companies whose products monopolise markets by eliminating alternatives. Many of the traditional pubs in Shoreditch have rejuvenated themselves by catering for the changing demographics of the area, making their venues attractive to a new generation which challenges stale patterns of behaviour while relishing the best traditions of social interaction. In this way are new layers of cultural complexity added for the next generation to savour - along with its beer.
Although these interactions and these places are small-scale, intimate and off-beat, I am sure that their accumulation will add up to more than the sum of the parts: their latent energy ripples the surface of society. To quote John Peel, today’s underground becomes tomorrow’s pop.