Many years ago today, way back in 1783, a highwayman called John Austin became the last person to be publicly strung up at the Tyburn gallows. It’s hard to believe that the site of countless gruesome acts – including, by the way, Oliver Cromwell’s posthumous, yes posthumous, execution; they exhumed his body from Westminster Abbey and had it hanged, drawn and quartered – is now home to a more frivolous form of entertainment, shopping. After all, the Tyburn tree used to stand at what’s now the junction of Edgware Road, Marble Arch and Oxford Street, and one would be hard-pressed to envision the frenzied scene of an execution day atop the current landscape. I mention this in order to touch on the extent to which London is charged with the weight of history. Virtually every quarter of the city has tales to tell, and even if you’re someone like me, who tends to prefer current stories to older ones, you’re unlikely to be immune from feeling a little mysterious tingle when you pass over ground steeped in the exertions of many past generations.
Think about that the next time you pop into Selfridges, or walk through Middle Temple, or, better yet, the next time you go to a concert at the Barbican. Imagine what the City of London looked like when Handel was in town, or Tallis, or Mozart, who, incidentally, lived on Frith Street for a while, in a corset maker’s house, and virtually across the street from what would later become Ronnie Scott’s, which I think Mozart would have enjoyed had he bothered to stick around for a spell, say 168 years or so.