Londinium – Its Genesis

Over the last 50 years, I  have tried to learn several languages and though my French is passable and I once spoke reasonable Italian, “frustrated linguist” describes me well.  Even at an early stage, I noticed that with each language I was a different person.  This gives rise to the intriguing notion that there are many ideas, thoughts and concepts, feelings lurking within me that I cannot express as I do not pocess the appropriate language.  What would the Twi me say, how would I feel in Hindi, how would I write poetry  in Finnish?  This difference alone makes it important, I feel, for our communities to have several languages.  English yes for day-to-day and to maintain social cohesiveness but other languages to bring difference, strength and beauty.

Planning or conscious action is not my strong point, as Valerie would tell you, but in April last year I mounted an exhibition that is a metaphor for the benefit of difference.  My poem, Londinium, in 28 languages  printed on A1 posters, designed by Jools Barrett, at the Dugdale Centre, Enfield.  A link to the index of all the poems is at the bottom of this blog or you can click here.

Here is the English version

I wanted to celebrate the 300 languages currently spoken in London and the 450 English is derived from.  Here is a list of the top 40 languages spoken in London

Top 40 Languages of London
Top 40, of 300, languages spoken in London

The fact that London’s population consists of people from such a variety of nations gives it great strength and vitality and, of course, London has, from the beginning been full of people from all over.

Pigeons and people flattened SH

Even Pigeons

Nelson's Column spiders flattened SH

It was first built by the Romans in the early 40s CE and the legions and administrators were from all nations across the Roman Empire so right from the start London’s population has been diverse. This particular spot for Londinium was chosen as the Thames narrows here yet is still tidal so sea going vessels could sail or row upstream to dock and unload.  It is still used to transport goods.

Barges on the Thames

Though I am not sure how this yacht managed to berth in Trafalgar Square!

NAtional GAlery

English owes its origins to migrants, the Angles, Saxons and Jutes who came to England in about 450 CE pushing the Britons west into Wales and Cornwall.   The latter’s Celtic language is now mainly found in place names or geographic terms in modern English but is still alive as modern Welsh and Cornish.  The early English language was pushed into the background by the Norman Conquest in 1066 when Norman French became the language of power although Norman French was spoken in the Royal courts before the conquest due to the somewhat complicated relationship of the rulers either side of the Channel.

Post Conquest, English was the least important of the three languages mainly spoken in England namely Latin, Norman French and English.   Welsh and Gaelic would also have been spoken to a degree and, no doubt, there were pockets of Saxon.  It was Chaucer writing in the 14th CE who started us along the path that has led to the dominance of English today; or at least, English and American.

I find thinking on the origins of language fascinating.  When one of the proto human species became omnivore its teeth and jaw became smaller as it did not need to munch on seeds and roots.  The reduction in size made the lips and tongue nimble enough to articulate sounds.  Becoming bipedal caused a section of the brain to develop so as to enable this and also find the rhythm to walk  This same section is used for music which led to vocal communication.  The first Homo Sapiens in Africa about 200,000 years ago acquired a gene that enabled their brain to break holistic sounds of communication, to segment a stream of sound, into chunks which led to words.  Speech is thought to have started to develop  around 170,000 years ago and became embedded in Homo Sapiens around 50,000 years ago.  It enabled co-operation and thinking which caused the Neanderthals to become extinct as Homo Sapiens were just too efficient at living.  This can be deduced from the explosion of art, decoration and ritual which needs social interaction and good communication  For detailed information I suggest the fascinating book, the Singing Neanderthals by Steven Mithen

The poem Londinium floated into my head as I was reading about London and I can recommend Peter Ackroyd’s books, London, the Biography and London Under. There are others on my shelf but I particularly liked these.  Boudicca burnt Londinium in 50 CE and there is still a line of burnt ash and iron between all the buried history of London and where we walk today.  I love the idea of all the archaeology of London cupped in the line of ash from Boudicca’s burning and the pavements on which stroll and London has always been noisy.  In the 17th Century the vigorous ringing of hand bells became a fashionable way to exercise adding to the noise of the smiths, wheelwrights, carpenters all hammering and crashing.  Think of it, thousands of bells sounding  everywhere in London all day and night.  London has always been stinking, smoke laden, busy with tanners, burning rubbish ,the soap makers, human and animal excrement in the street, urine being collected and used to wash clothes in public laundries and all those unwashed bodies and bad teeth!  

In its beginning the River Thames was very wide and dotted with islands or eyots.  Building over the centuries has narrowed it to where it is today and the rivers feeding it covered over.  You can see in these two photographs  looking taken from The Eye, that the Thames basin is huge giving some idea as to how wide the Thames would have been.

Last year a French mother and daughter, friends of our grandson, stayed with us for their first visit to England.  They were overwhelmed at how friendly and helpful Londoners were.  London is friendly and accepting, this is its great strength which is why I ended my poem as I did. 

Kinder childernThis statue at Liverpool Street station is in memory of the Kindertransport which enabled Jewish children to escape Nazi Germany  They were given homes all over Britain.

A friend, who is an Israeli poet, translated Londinium into Hebrew.  I was very excited, a poem of mine in Hebrew!  I then began to wonder, what could I do with it?  I do not speak Hebrew so cannot perform it.  If, I said to myself, I had a few other translations I could print them and put them on a wall.  Well this thought led to another and another and 27 languages later I had the basis for an exhibition.  Paul Everitt Head of Culture for Enfield, introduced me to the designer Jools Barret who produced some magnificent designs.

Posters Photo

The translation process was interesting as metaphor and ideas are different in each language and I had many illuminating conversations with the translators.  For the language notes I had with each poster I used two interesting and useful books; Dictionary of Languages by Andrew Dalby and The World’s Major Languages edited by Bernard Comrie and, of course good old Wikipedia.

All the translations, including English, can be found by clicking here.  Just click on the language in the list and you will find the poem on the page and with an audio recording of the poem being read in that language and if you scroll down, the poster and language notes from the exhibition.  Before you visit these pages please view the video below.  The idea came to me whilst travelling on the train to Liverpool Street Station.  The carriage was full of people speaking in a multitude of languages at the top of their voices.  I could not understand any of them but it sounded fun, was exciting.

Tea at the Shard

Our children gave us the very generous Christmas  present of Tea at the Shard.  We decided to wait until the summer to ensure good weather and a clear view.  When we went last week it was raining and cloudy!  The week before, as it happened, I viewed the Shard on the London skyline from the roof of a hotel in Blackfriars.

Shard Skyline from Blackfriars
The Shard from the seventh floor, Blackfriars

It was at an interesting and optimistic breakfast meeting organised by the London Borough of Enfield.

On the way to the Shard  we went to Trafalgar Square,  to see the sculpture of a soldier created to remember the terrible battle of Passchendaele .

Passchandale 2

It was formed of mud and sand from Passchendaele and it brought home to me how awful it must have been living in the trenches, how tired and despondent the troops must have been.  The statue will slowly flow way in the English rain forming a pool of mud and despair.


I hope we never forget this time.  Poppy Day  keeps the memory alive as does the poetry of WWII  ; also the Kodak Vest Pocket camera .

vest pocket Kodak

 Introduced in 1912 it enabled people to photograph their loved ones before they left to fight and soldiers to carry one to record their experiences.  This latter was against regulations but they were small, 1″ x 2 3/8″ x 4 3/4 “, enough to hide away.  My grandfather was in the Royal Flying Corps and I have a photo of him sitting on  a shell on a goods train but, of course I cannot find it.  From the size of the picture it was taken with this camera.  He also gave me a Mills Bomb, 

Mills grenade with tape

(deactivated) telling me that he used to drop them on enemy forces from  bi-planes.  He was the observer.  He also dropped flechettes.  flechetteMade of steel they look dreadful things.





V in National Portrait cafeWe then called in at the café in the basement of the National Portrait gallery for a drink before taking the Northern Line to London Bridge Station where we walked a few paces though gusty rain into the Shard and whizzed up 32 floors in a few seconds.







We had a table by the window and the view was breath-taking.

Th thames from the Shard looking East

The window’s dirty, how do they clean them,  and the glass probably is treated to keep the UV out hence the blue cast to the photo but isn’t the skyline interesting?  There is always a crane in London:

There is always a crane

I was amazed as to how many leisure craft moving around at the same time and there were two official looking bright orange RHIBs zooming here and there and two tugs towing barges.


The one above,  is towing two barges with 28 shipping containers altogether, that is 14 lorries!  The other tug was towing just one barge but this still represents 14 lorries.  The warship is HMS Belfast , well worth a visit.

Now the Tea.  Well the tea, drink, was disappointing little choice and my black tea had little taste but at over 70 I have lost half of my taste buds.  The plate of savouries were wonderful – not shown the this photo unfortunately.


Goat cheese quiche, lobster sandwich, black pudding sausage roll and smoked salmon with dill in a small brioche roll.  The scones, see picture above, were delicate well flavoured, crisp on the outside, best I have had since my grandmother made them.  The sweets were dreadful and all tasted the same except for the chocolate cup which had an interesting chocolate crumble inside.

The mix of people was interesting, all ages,  rich, city types, the young, smart, thrusting, people from all over, Valerie and me, and a proud man leading a group of about 15 and his body language shouting ” I am going to pay for this lot!” The staff were super, to use an old fashioned adjective.

Before we left, we went to the loo.  Valerie said hers was all mirrors, she lost herself in images and mine was so stunning I quite forgot what I was there for, well almost.

There was even a light showing me where to aim for and.  I felt as if I was micturating into an exhibit at the Tate ModernLooking down I could see the lines running out of London Bridge Station.

Tarins from the Urinal

I love to see trains, like the concept of people travelling it thrilling and uplifting, mysterious.

We had to leave as the space was turning into a bar.  A price list arrived and I winced.  When I stopped drinking, beer was 58 pence a pint.

A final look down:


and we were gone.