Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Don't Mess with This Hotbed of London Dissent

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Don't Mess with This Hotbed of London Dissent

Article excerpt

Byline: Tristram Hunt

IT TAKES some doing to unite London's Marxists with its Freemasons, but Islington council has done just that. Nine years after it attempted to flog off Clerkenwell Green at public auction, the Lib-Demled borough is back with new proposals to privatise this historic public space. And the eccentric collection of institutes and fraternities who inhabit this wonderful urban square are rightly up in arms.

Amid the deadly jargonese of Islington council's new Action Area Plan there lurks a threat to encourage shops and cafes "to locate on Clerkenwell Green". What that means in practice, according to the Clerkenwell Green Preservation Society, is that the unique attributes of "this public open space of national importance" would be undone by yet more cafes and takeaways. In the process, "public activities, public assembly and recreation" would be sacrificed for commercial concerns. Al fresco dining and May Day marches rarely rub along together.

Of course, the "green" is not a green at all. It is a small, raised area encircled by open roads, leading to narrow streets, and overlooked by the elegant spire of the church of St James. But ever since Wat Tyler and his revolting peasants turned up in 1381 to behead the local prior, torch the monastery and camp out, it has served as the place of London radicalism. From the beginning, as Peter Ackroyd puts it in his biography of the capital, "it has been the home of groups who wish to be separate and separated".

In the 15th century that meant the religious free-thinkers, the Lollards. In the 16th century, persecuted Catholics sought refuge there -- which didn't save three of them being hanged, drawn and quartered on the green. Then came the Quakers and even the Freemasons, who still reside opposite at Sessions House.

But it was the battle for the vote and the struggle for liberty in the 1800s which saw Clerkenwell Green established as the heartland of radical activism. …

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