Written in May 2010 by me and my late lamented friend Brett Foster, and published online by the late and lamented Books & Culture. Unfortunately, several links are now dead, and so I have omitted them.
London Letters, 1
From Great St. Bart’s to St. Helen’s.
What a wonderful time I had in London, thanks in good part to your excellent company. My previous visits had been with our Wheaton-in-England program (a summer study tour), so this experience of going to London for just a few days and then zipping back home is new to me. The visit was over before I had a chance to assess it. So I’m doing my assessing now — along with you, I trust.
I first saw London exactly twenty years ago, so I’m contemplating the city’s changes over two decades. What would I have thought if I had been transported directly from 1990 to 2010? There are many developments, of course, and different visitors, depending on their interests and the paths they take through the city, will register widely varying impressions. That there’s a big Ferris wheel on the Thames — it’s still there, isn’t it? — means little to me; that the British Library has its own building, rather than being jammed into the British Museum, signifies mightily. The design of the Library has generated a good deal of debate over the years, but I have always liked it; what I have never been able to get used to, though, is its placement, stacked on raucous Euston Road alongside Euston Station, St. Pancras, King’s Cross — enormous toy buildings lined up haphazardly by a bored giant. I can’t help wondering what that library would look like in the BM’s Bloomsbury neighborhood, with its patchwork of green squares.
Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to envision a second city arising in the old disused Docklands, with skyscrapers better suited for Chicago than old London. (We got a neat quick tour of the space from your friend Christopher Bond, who once worked in one of those towers and looked out his office window only to see yet another one going up.) Twenty years ago it would have been impossible to imagine the proliferation of coffee shops — and, for that matter, the wide availability in all kinds of shops of excellent tea. Not long ago, discriminating English folk might have enjoyed loose-leaf teas in their homes or in upscale tea-shops, but elsewhere coffee and tea alike came in huge stainless-steel urns. Now you can stop in the café of the Museum of London, say, and get an elegant china pot with fine loose tea spooned into a neat little cheesecloth bag. A great pleasure for a tired walker on a chilly day, one I experienced twice.
I took those restful pauses while visiting city churches, primarily — including those near but outside the old walls and therefore not in the City proper. From Bloomsbury I headed east and came to the vast Smithfield Market, just south of which is St. Bartholomew’s the Great — the oldest church in London, its round Norman arches in grey stone. A holy place, even though much of the church is long gone — only the chancel remains, which is bigger than most churches, and a Lady chapel that fell out of use some time after the Reformation and was turned to other purposes: at one point it was a printer’s shop, where Benjamin Franklin, of all people, learned the trade. It’s a chapel again now, with a colorful recent painting of the Madonna and Child behind the small altar — a bit of Modigliani-ish style against the Norman stone, which seems a bit discordant to me. But Great St. Bart’s remains, as Iain Sinclair has said, the most numinous of London’s churches.
The current rector seems to be Anglo-Catholic in sympathies: I smelled incense as I came in the door, and noted some classes to be offered in the thought of John Henry Newman. And yet I saw also an assertive notice proclaiming that, whatever other churches might do, this one offers Communion to anyone who wants it, regardless of baptism or belief — something that would have horrified Newman, who believed that, as some theologians have put it, Communion is the sacrament of the reconciled, but Baptism must come before as the sacrament of reconciliation itself. Aesthetic Anglo-Catholicism needs to be distinguished from doctrinal Anglo-Catholicism, I think.
A little later, walking east along London Wall, I noted the odd solitary tower of St. Alban Wood Street — a Christopher Wren church otherwise destroyed, sitting incongruously in the middle of the road — and then the blank brick flank of All Hallows-on-the-Wall. Turning down Bishopsgate I passed, almost without seeing it, the shy façade of St. Ethelburga’s, flush with the surrounding office buildings: it’s not a parish church anymore, after a 1993 IRA bomb nearly destroyed it, but houses the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace. Then I crossed a building site, rounded a corner, and came up on St. Helen’s — which is unseeable to any such walker for a moment, thanks to the great looming bulk of the Gherkin just behind it.
But when you go in, you discern a beautiful space, not quite as old as Great St. Bart’s but 13th century, and yet utterly different in aspect and atmosphere. To some extent this results from the large clear windows, some of which were installed after the IRA bomb that devastated St. Ethelburga’s and much of Bishopsgate shattered the ancient stained glass. The restoration that followed seemed bent on transforming this Gothic structure into a Wren-style auditory church. The space is open and strongly lit — it seems a place for listening to sermons and taking notes in your Bible, which is quite fitting when you consider the strongly evangelical character of the congregation today.
There’s no parish in London more dynamic than St. Helen’s: any time you walk in — as you know from experience, Brett — the devotion and zeal are palpable. In St. Helen’s I automatically smile. Visit on a weekday morning and you’re likely to find people wheeling in bag lunches and placing Bibles in the stackable chairs in preparation for lunchtime Bible studies (heavily attended by workers in this financial district). It’s great.
And yet there’s something just a little odd about it: the drum kit and amplifiers next to the 17th-century pulpit, the folding tables and styrofoam cups set up around the great marble monuments to the distinguished dead of the City … the space seems just a space, somewhere to meet and praise. If the very stones of Great St. Bart’s feel numinous, those of St. Helen’s feel just functional, as though an old hall or gymnasium would serve the purpose just as well. Which of course they would: the people of God can find His presence anywhere, and the vibrancy of worship at St. Helen’s is immensely attractive. But I’m still trying to account for my feelings of dissonance.
In any event, when I think about our recent trip, this polarity — Great St. Bart’s at one end of the City and of my walk, St. Helen’s at the other — comes first to my mind. What about you?
London Letters, 2
On the track of an Italianate gentleman.
Yes, it was a grand time, wasn’t it? And how is it that those few days near Russell Square — and from there, various wayward points — already seem to have receded so quickly? London is becoming again just another city: sometimes visited and, between visits, only barely present in the mind. Or a city seen as through water. “Let London in Thames melt, and the wide arch / of the rang’d empire fall,” Antony might have said in Shakespeare’s play, if the speaker were not Roman and if the line scanned better. (If Antony were speaking now, he could have meant Marble Arch; forgive me, but I am now imagining Marc Antony — puzzled by trousers perhaps — as he shops in Selfridge’s, the department store close by that arch. I must stop. Finis.)
Perhaps in these letters we’ll be able to revisit, as it were, a few places or topics recently encountered, before they vanish, wordless, into the back alleys of memory. Or better yet: back into the darkened pathway of St. Bartholomew’s Close, just down from your numinous Great St. Bart’s and the hall of the Worshipful Company of Butchers.
First, I couldn’t agree more about the importance, or at least your and my occasionally manic enthusiasm for, the British Library. It seems to be thriving in its new or relatively new location, several blocks north of the British Museum. Over the past few years I have certainly appreciated the study-friendly reading rooms and the efficient way one can get registered (even if jet-lagging, nodding off as you order up first items) and can then take a first crack at rare books the very same day, if wished. And like you, I really admire the building design itself. For a book nerd, the red brick, metal-red detailing, green awnings, and red-and-white checked pavement all make me think of Christmas: books, maps, manuscripts, awaiting their readers and perusers in the rooms within. In your linked photo of the library, the Newton, After William Blake statue is prominent, as it should be, occupying a noticeable place in the library courtyard. One online commenter says “it is easy to walk straight past it.” Is that your experience at all? Not mine.
That oversized sculpture by Edoardo Paolozzi, of Isaac Newton bent over his compass, an image taken from a 1795 print by the poet-engraver Blake, always makes me a little giddy as I approach the library’s front entrance. Paolozzi chose this image because it fused two strands of English genius: Newton’s scientific discoveries with Blake’s visionary art. Newton also captures the ambivalences of scholarship and knowledge, or small parcels of knowledge that eventually diminish the fully human experience. In Blake’s original setting, Newton is at the bottom of the sea. He is obsessed with his geometrical swath front and center, but utterly unaware of the vast natural world surrounding him. He may be all mind, but there is also something resembling the divine within the figure. Newton hunches over the world with his measuring instrument, akin to God the author of the Book of Nature. Anyway, I’ve always found the statue to be a cool, fitting landmark — Newton as academic sentinel guarding the library’s holdings, with a little allusive dash of mad Blake’s lyric spirit to keep us readers, we hope, from taking ourselves too seriously.
You also mentioned the library’s somewhat incongruous location along bustling Euston Road, just east of the Euston rail station and adjacent to the St. Pancras and King’s Cross stations. A youth hostel, a Pizza Express, and the Euston Flyer pub are more lively venues across the street. Have I shown you this photo of the library?
Not as close up as yours, it is taken from the busy street beyond the courtyard, so that one of the “enormous toy buildings” you spoke of, St. Pancras, rises behind the steadfast-looking library with a turreted whimsy, kind of like a mischievous sibling making faces at an older sister’s recital. I hadn’t noticed before the cranes beside those flamboyant towers, but seeing them in their gaunt, monotonous industry, they strike me now, like Newton, After William Blake, as suitable symbols for the scholarly activity taking place below.
Lest I sound disparaging, let me quickly add that I was keen to undertake my own modest research during our few days in the city. I was interested in the writings of an English Renaissance traveler named William Thomas, who has intrigued me since I first wrote about him a few years ago. He is often grouped with other “Italianate gentlemen,” but his life, circumstances, and allegiances were uniquely complicated, as were his religious beliefs. As you well know, Alan, confessional matters during this turbulent time of religious revolution were almost always far more complex than we usually imagine them today, with our simple “Protestant/Roman Catholic” toggle. Anyway, thanks to reformist chroniclers, William Thomas was long known as a “hot gospeller” who traveled to Italy to escape the Catholic oppression of his boss, Sir Anthony Browne. (Browne served Henry VIII at court as Master of the Horse.)
Well, as it turns out this guy had a gambling problem and embezzled from said boss. Surely this explains why he fled to Venice, where he was promptly arrested. Some letters survive from England’s ambassador there, describing this apprehended servant’s plight. Think of the time when you have felt most disgraced; that’s the tone that rings out in Thomas’ plea, even when relayed secondhand on April 10, 1545:
… said Thomas arrived here that self same day and season …. And of his own motion declared me at length his faults & disorders against his master not by malicious mind but by folly & misfortune of play [that is, games of chance] which had reduced him to ruin & constrained him to depart from his master & country in great fear & desperation.
The king’s agent soon writes of Thomas’ “pitiful moan” in prison, the moan “he maketh with incessible [unceasing] weepings for his trespasses which seemeth to grieve him no less than death.” And yet, like any scandal-ridden politician or athlete today, Thomas eventually remade himself and restored his reputation. He had to wait till King Henry and his wronged master died, but he finally returned to England. He also spent profitably his few years loitering in Italy, visiting various cities and studying their courts. Thomas returned to court armed with good Renaissance currency, having composed books and translations bearing the marks of a politically shrewd Italianate humanist.
On my first day at the British Library, I reread his Historie of Italye (1549), the first book of its sort in English. Thomas also produced the first Italian-English dictionary, and I was most keen to see a dialogue of his, entitled Pellegrin’ or Perygrine (meaning “The Pilgrim” or “Traveler”), in which his textual doppelganger defends the recently deceased Henry VIII against suspicious Italians’ charges of heresy, tyranny, and lasciviousness. Although it was never printed during Thomas’ lifetime, this dialogue made the perfect gift for the new boy-king, Edward VI, proud son of the dead Henry. It clearly circulated at court, and the British Library has three different manuscript versions. Unfortunately, I was warned when registering that there was a strike pending for my first two days there, and consequently the manuscript room might be closed. And so it was. The staff’s “industrial action” threatened me with “inaction,” but I tried to take the situation in stride and concentrate on Thomas’ printed volumes. How would this all turn out?, I kept wondering, mainly bemused but a little nervous, too. I have already unspooled this tale too excessively, so let me move on, for now.
Let me conclude this first letter with a confession: I do not possess, not even close, the same temporal sensitivity to London that you discussed, those changes from twenty years ago till now. Your musing on your first visit to the city reminded me of Henry James’ English Hours, published in 1905 but featuring a recollection of London written in 1888. James recalls his own maiden arrival in London, on a “wet, black Sunday” twenty years ago, like yourself, and — much like our trip! — “about the first of March.” Looking back, he writes, “I find every small circumstance of those hours of approach and arrival still as vivid as if the solemnity of an opening era had breathed upon it.” Conversely, that vividness is generally unavailable to me as I recall my first trip there, fewer than twenty years ago, but not by much. (I did appreciate James’ wonder “that England should be as English as, for my entertainment, she took the trouble to be.”) Brand new to the city and hemisphere, I instead felt more like James did when he described his experience elsewhere. “It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London,” he writes in his journal in 1881. “It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy, or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.”
Don’t get me wrong, I certainly retain and cherish memories of those first days exploring the city as a college student, studying abroad all too briefly. Often I took the bus from Oxford for a full, exhausting Saturday of city walking, emerging fresh-faced and wide-eyed from Victoria Station. I remember the Blake Room at the Tate, visiting Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey, and the white stone of the Tower of London. I stayed in Kensington once, but that is all I can say about it. I remember, more personally, hearty meals of shepherd’s pie or beef stew in this or that public house in Old London. Or the pleasing heaviness of the pound-sterling coins, accumulating in my pocket because, out of habit, I was still paying for even small transactions with five-pound notes. Yet overall, like Henry James again, this time writing to Alice James on March 10, 1869, I remember that which precludes memory, that gladly overwhelmed feeling, a sense of being crushed under the “mere magnitude of London — its inconceivable immensity — in such a way as to paralyse my mind for any appreciation of details.” So again, I just don’t have that same, sharp sense of dramatic changes as you have.
Sometimes there is Jamesian paralysis, and sometimes a person merely lacks the occasion for such temporal reflection. Take the British Library again, for example. I have only known it in its newer, present location, and can hardly imagine a library of that stature taking up its limited space in the British Museum. For me, visiting there these pat few years only, it has always been where it is. I do know what you mean, however, about the library being a bit out of place on busy Euston Street, compared with the quieter, more studious atmosphere of the museum and central Bloomsbury, with its “patchwork of green squares” that you lovingly invoke. I recall that we commented on the charm of that neighborhood while strolling along those side streets just to south of the British Museum — Montague Street, Coptic Street, Gilbert Place, Little Russell Street. At one point we peered into the back window of what used to be Quinto’s Books. Its bare floor and shelves we could just glimpse through the dirty pane. Deserted, it was a sad sight. There remains a Quinto’s Books on Charing Cross Road, traditional stretch for booksellers, but even that location is about to move a few storefronts to the north. Everything changes. Maybe, in cases like these, it doesn’t take acuity and twenty years to realize how transient are so many places in a city, even (and especially) ones special to us.
You and I, we continued our walk to nearby Gower Street and an Oxfam bookshop, and just ahead, the tourist swarm around Covent Garden. It felt like high literary propriety to stand with you outside the little café named Boswell’s, although I sympathized with your understandable disappointment. It was doubly venerable, as the spot where the great biographer Boswell first met his enduring subject, the great essayist and man of letters Dr. Johnson. More painfully, it was also the prior location of the sublime (or nearly so, to hear you describe it) Café Valerie. Everything changes, but history patronizes us at least: “This is where Mr. Boswell met Dr. Johnson,” says the placard there. “It happened at about 7 pm the evening of the 16th of May 1763 / Boswell was taking tea with Tom Davis when Johnson walked in.” Fortunately, history sometimes backs off for a little while. We soon happened upon your sorely missed café’s newest incarnation, Patisserie Valerie, on the other side of the market square. Followed of course by cappuccino and a hot-cross bun. It was so swell, just totally swell.
So that sense of a “vertical” London you describe, layers of memories and changed landmarks and habits, is less sure in my mind, but I have been entertaining another type of appreciation for this differing city, less temporal than what? — tonal, I think. Yet as I think of it, and ponder your comments about St. Alban and other sites near London Wall, this notion likewise involves history, historical change. Let me give it a few more days’ thought, and in the meantime, I look forward to hearing what has most struck you about our visit, even farther away by now, since your last letter.
London Letters, 3
Think Feet First.
Your deference to my sense of London’s changes makes me feel like an old London hand — so thanks for that! But of course I’m really a piker and a tourist. After all, I am so aware of these changes largely because I come to London so rarely, and in a big city significant changes can accumulate over a relatively short period of time. And in an old city, like London, the changes are perhaps more visible against a backdrop of unchanging — or rather, very slowly changing — monuments: St. Paul’s, Trafalgar Square, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, what have you.
“Very slowly changing” is the norm, I guess, though the further qualification is needed that we might have a rather different sense of London if the British Museum or St. Paul’s had been destroyed in the Blitz — and St. Paul’s survived only miraculously, given the devastation that surrounded it. But in comparison to many German cities, for instance, London retains much of its visible history, especially for those who know how to look for it.
You know what an admirer I am of that consummate Londoner Peter Ackroyd, who has done so much to recover the material and mental worlds of the previous residents of his city. In Ackroyd’s biographies of Londoners he’s constantly aware of how people got themselves around the city: he can tell us — he does tell us — what the young Thomas More would have seen as he walked the few hundred yards through the lanes of the City — Milk Street, Threadneedle Street — from his home to his school; he offers us Dickens, strolling north through Soho and, in just a few minutes, into pure English countryside, somewhere around what are now the thick urban densities of Camden Town. I bet Ackroyd could lead you on a wonderful tour that followed in the possibly disreputable footsteps of your Italianate-gentleman-hot-gospeller William Thomas.
Ackroyd even describes for us T. S. Eliot’s workaday route from his flat in Chelsea to the Faber & Faber offices in Bloomsbury, first by bus, then by tube, concluding with the Russell Square stop’s silent elevator ride, which you and I know so well.
That daily experience of the Underground commute even finds its way into Eliot’s Four Quartets, sometimes explicitly —
Or as, when an underground train, in the tube, stops too long between stations
And the conversation rises and slowly fades into silence
And you see behind every face the mental emptiness deepen
Leaving only the growing terror of nothing to think about;
— and sometimes implicitly:
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.
It’s not a “twittering world” anymore, of course, since there’s no internet access underground, and people have to wait to tweet until they get into the open air. But while the verse is beautiful, I do want to say, come on, Tom, lighten up. As my wife Teri often remarks, “He who is tired of the tube is tired of life.” It’s true that the tube is awfully crowded these days — I still don’t know how we managed to squeeze ourselves aboard on that last morning as we headed back to Heathrow — and if Eliot had to face today’s conditions he would probably give up the ghost, or at least take early retirement. But you and I are made of sterner stuff. Or else we just recalled that we only had to deal with it for a week.
I know you have been an aficionado of the London buses, which have allowed you and your family to survey the streets, and your comments on that subject have made me wonder why I always take the tube — that is, when I take public transportation at all. I used to spend more time on the tube than I now do: my habits changed when I began to realize that you really can’t tell, when you’re underground, how far apart the stations are. I started doing some calculations and realized that for at least some of my usual destinations I could get there faster by walking than by finding a tube station, descending into the depths, waiting for a train, taking the train, emerging from the depths …. When that realization hit me I started to become the kind of visitor that inveterate walkers like Ackroyd could appreciate, or at least tolerate. And interestingly, the National Health Service is trying to get Londoners into the same habit of mind: Think Feet First. I do, HNS! I do!
P.S. Can’t resist one lovely quotation from Ackroyd’s evocative biography of More:
The infant was taken, within a week of its birth, to the precincts of the church; the child of wrath must be reformed into the image of God, ‘the servant of the fiend’ made into ‘a son of joy’. At the church-door the priest asked the midwife if the child were male or female, and then made a sign of the cross on the infant’s forehead, breast and right hand. He placed some salt in the baby’s mouth according to custom; then the priest exorcised the devil from its body with a number of prayers, and pronounced baptism as the sole means ‘to obtain eternal grace by spiritual regeneration’. The priest spat in his left hand and touched the ears and nose of the child with his saliva. Let the nose be open to the odour of sweetness. It was time to enter the church itself, the priest taking the right hand of the new-born child who had with the salt and saliva been granted the station of a catechumen.
The litanies of the saints were pronounced over the baptismal font; the priest then divided the water with his right hand and cast it in the four directions of the cross. He breathed three times upon it and then spilled wax in a cruciform pattern. He divided the holy water with a candle, before returning the taper to the cleric beside him. Oil and chrism were added, with a long rod or spoon, and the child could now be baptised. Thomas More, what seekest thou? The sponsors replied for the infant, Baptism. Dost thou wish to be baptised? I wish. The child was given to the priest, who immersed him three times in the water. He was then anointed with chrism and wrapped in a chrismal robe. Thomas More, receive a white robe, holy and unstained, which thou must bring before the tribunal of Our Lord Jesus Christ, that thou mayest have eternal life and live for ever and ever. The candle was lit and placed in the child’s right hand, thus inaugurating a journey through this dark world which ended when, during the last rites, a candle was placed in the right hand of the dying man with the prayer, ‘The Lord is my Light and my Salvation, whom shall I fear?’ …
In the more pious households, [the mother] would have worn a girdle made out of manuscript prayer rolls in the last stages of her pregnancy, and it was customary in labour to invoke the name of St Margaret as well as the Blessed Virgin. She remained secluded after giving birth, and two or three weeks later was led out to be ‘churched’ or purified. When she was taken to the church, her head was covered by a handkerchief, as a veil, and she was advised not to look up at the sun or the sky. She knelt in the church while the priest blessed her and assured her, in the words of Psalm 121, that ‘the sun shall not burn her by day, nor the moon by night. It was a ceremony both to celebrate the birth of the child and to give thanks for the survival of the mother. This is the late fifteenth-century world into which Thomas More was baptised.
London Letters, 4
I love that lengthy concluding passage from Peter Ackroyd, and many things besides in your second letter. I mean, how that christening ritual comes to life through the many details he includes! I think we, too, may have been “sons of joy” for at least a little bit during our London sojourn — a spare moment either contented or buoyant here and there. I have read your latest letter tonight with special pleasure amid a busy week, and as we had hoped for this exchange, it sent me back to certain hours and corners of our recent travels. Now that we’re home, it has me wishing to revisit and reread a number of books. As Dr. Johnson (and Teri, too) almost said, “He who is tired of London authors is tired of literature.” And that definitely goes for Peter Ackroyd as well.
I noticed on our flight from Chicago to London that a young traveler across the aisle, likely a college student on spring break, was reading the very first pages of Ackroyd’s magisterial London: A Biography. “Good luck with that!” I must admit to thinking. Not because that fellow couldn’t enjoy or wasn’t enjoying that book immensely, but rather because its panoramic coverage, warrens of sub-narratives, and learned digressions make it a less than ideal companion for a night flight to London soon followed by a morning among the city’s streets. Using Ackroyd’s London as anything resembling a guide book is rather like reading Wittgenstein’s Tractatus to practice the ABCs. Again, good luck with that. But lucky us if we have Ackroyd’s literary itineraries, like that one you quote in his Thomas More biography. They serve to guide us in our own remembrances, as well as those reaching back long ago when the streets were paths and all the buildings timber.
On the other hand, you’re right that London retains much of its visible history, but this history also displays many signs of injury, wouldn’t you say? Maybe the slow changes you describe stand as a kind of scar tissue of urban travails and transience, covering up but never quite abolishing what came before. They point like an allegorical mower to what has been cut down, has fallen upon itself. You mention the slow changes to certain iconic monuments or landmarks, Trafalgar Square let’s say. This reminds me of a striking photo I saw recently — a closeup of Trafalgar Square, recognizable except for the absence of all its broad expanses of concrete. The square no longer looked like the heavily trafficked gathering place that it is, but rather like a field, or better, a country-house lawn, with healthy green grass where the concrete had been, leading right up to and surrounding Nelson’s Column. This was no sci-fi vision or a surrealist art student’s senior project. The photo was taken in May 2007, during a two-day event when 2,000 meters of the square were transformed into the sort of green world (with deck chairs, and well maintained!) that the English imagination has so cherished through the centuries. Part Forest of Arden, part country house tennis court. For me, this urban green space called to mind the once wooded suburban areas of Shoreditch or Newington Butts, where those wooden playhouses first emerged in the Renaissance.
You know, this image of crowded theaters in the fields reminds me of a Fugazi show I attended once, outside Lawrence, Kansas. Alan, some buddies and I were literally walking through a corn field to find the venue! I was like, “What the — ?” And then, behold: a half-built wooden structure, an unfinished house or perhaps a barn never completed. It was perfect for a summertime concert, with just enough room for a mosh pit, for slamming to Fugazi’s righteous riffs. And in its fiery energy, perhaps that show was not so different from Pembroke’s Men staging Titus Andronicus, or that record we have of The Taming of the Shrew playing farther afield (literally) in Newington Butts. Alan, I know you were not able to enjoy the theater during this London trip as you usually do, but I would love to share a few thoughts with you on this pastime. Anything come to mind? For me, London’s theater scene is such a big part of its cultural life, a showy signature of urban vitality. Anyway, I realize I digress with the Renaissance theaters and the cornfields and the Fugazi concert in Kansas and what not, but I claim the essayist’s license, that freedom to meander mentally like our hero Montaigne.
Back to Trafalgar Square in turf: I keep wondering what it finally suggests. An ecotopian Golden or Vernal Age, where nature has reclaimed the gray urban environment for the good of all? The planners themselves wished their installation to invoke nostalgia for “Village London,” prodding visitors to reflect in their habits the pre-industrialized atmosphere of village life. Conversely, does a grassy Trafalgar rather suggest a post-civilization era, where nature has reclaimed the gray urban environment for good, good riddance? I guess we experienced one vaguely “post-population” moment when we first arrived at Heathrow, and cruised through that usually serpentine customs line with dreamlike ease and speed. It was even a little spooky, to see how unusually empty that area was. Where was everybody?, we wondered, and then promptly thought, Who cares? How awesome to cruise by. How auspicious! Of course it did not last. The Piccadilly line was closed for Saturday repairs, and so we had to resort to a wayward, roundabout bus route — a more drawn out, more taxing and crowded serpentine sensation. I think it’s safe to say we felt not unlike dear old Henry James, describing the “tortuous miles” of his, in truth, relatively short trip from Euston to Moreley’s Hotel near Trafalgar Square: “It was not lovely — it was in fact rather terrible.”
If green Trafalgar invokes that latter, post-human scenario, then let’s ruminate on ruins for a moment. I can hear deep within that grassy image the occasional cries of the more durable birds, can see the crumbling (by then) statues of the military heroes atop three of the square’s four plinths — George IV, Sir Charles James Napier, Henry Havelock — and the traditionally empty fourth plinth in the northwest corner now destined to be empty forever. My mind begins to peer around the square and into the deserted National Portrait Gallery, where there is only natural light piercing the deep shadows, and moss hanging from the faces of the long forgotten illustrious of Britain. From mass transit to sic transit, just like that.
Now I am doing it again: in conceiving of London’s visible history, or of a time when the few days we spent in London will be remote history, I still cannot help but think of such stuff in vertical terms. In some ways that’s entirely sensible: St. Paul’s was built centuries ago upon the site of a pagan temple. Similarly, we often do visualize the passing of time as a layering of eras and their more material remains, the older traces covered by earth that seems heaped up by the years themselves. I think of the old London wall you have already mentioned, as seen from the higher prospect of the Museum of London. Or of that moss imagined above — thickening as if pushing the thing it covers farther down (“down”?) into oblivion. Even without this material layering, so many places in London reflect that gyre-widening sense of historical succession and — how to say it? — metamorphic identity. One example from your last letter would be the St. Alban Wood Street tower, its incongruous location a clear if still mysterious sign of its utterly changed landscape and purpose. Where did the rest of it go? When did that building emerge right beside it? Truly odd. You also brought up St. Ethelberga nearby — a center for peace studies now, after that 1993 IRA bombing effectively ended its prior life as a church. And yet there it stands, different in function but still there, another visible sign.
These examples lead me to others, all of which point to one major source of my admiration for London — its resilience in the face of these changes, be they gradual and centuries’ long or caused by the instant destruction of an attack, or something in between. Do you remember when we stopped briefly in front of the Zeppelin Building? We were on Farringdon Road by then, I think. A plaque on the edifice reads, “These premises were totally destroyed by a Zeppelin Raid during the World War on September 8th 1915 / Rebuilt 1917.” What a quiet defiance in that last detail, in that rebuilding two years later. What’s more, that assumption of the name of the destroyer borders on an un-English flippancy. “We flout you, German zeppelin! We appropriate you.”
The more apropos word, though, remains “resiliency.” How perfectly fitting is that sign “Keep Calm and Carry On,” which the English government produced at the beginning of World War II, the century’s next great occasion for London conflagration. (I can’t help but hear a tonal echo here with the chipper phrase you mentioned, “Think Feet First”!) The phrase was meant to hearten everyone if Nazi forces succeeded in invading England. They did not, but wreaked much destruction by air. The Blitz makes me think of Eliot’s poetry, and a less “workaday” moment in Four Quartets:
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing …
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting. …
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
Eliot records here, and lyrically sublimates, his service as an air-raid warden and firewatcher during The Blitz. The experience is present too in these more memorable lines:
The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.
Those raids, I would have thought, must have shaken London’s citizens to their core, leaving them fearful and huddled. But so many stories and remembrances and so much photographic evidence suggest otherwise; Londoners did their best to go about their daily routine, even in the face of aerial apocalypse. I suspect we here can hardly fathom that fortitude because our little patch of turf known as Chicagoland has not experienced such an onslaught. (Thanks be to God.) Just the other day, on the Metra train into the Loop, I saw a curious advertisement, and one that felt indicting as I thought of London’s visible history: “Heated Floors from Warmly Yours / Making Comfort Easy.” That feels more like the American inheritance.
Alan, we soon encountered on that Sunday-afternoon walk another site of “flame of incandescent terror” — I mean the market at Smithfield. What a calm, lovely place it was for us: clear sunlight, the huge roof of the market itself steadfast and covering not very much activity at all. A strange calm in a place usually bustling with buying and selling. That version of quiet that a city allows. A couple of white lorries idled outside the market, and there were a few bikes chained to the black gate surrounding the square. The trees within were not yet in bloom, but still invitingly sylvan. Four and a half centuries ago, this was the place where many of the 300-plus Marian martyrs were burned at the stake. (They are commemorated on the southern side of the square.) A statue of a woman stood in the center of the gated, wooded area — was it Anne Askew, that memorable protestor of Catholic clerical abuses and superstitions, as she saw them? Fearlessly she argued scriptural hermeneutics and Eucharistic controversies with intimidating confessors and powerful bishops and councilmen. And what wit she shows in our record of her incarceration, The Examinations of Anne Askew! “Why throw pearls before swine when acorns will do?” she quipped to one of her interrogators. She was the worst kind of problem for these male church authorities: a learned, eloquent woman with strong convictions. However, the statue is not Askew, as we soon found out, but is an allegorical figure, Peace. Askew would be fittingly honored here, but given the fiery history of this spot, the benign bronze presence of Peace is certainly warranted, too.
I have already gone on at some length here, and should spare you more and send this to you at once. However, I must include one last example, of a visible trace of recent history. I mean that terrible day of 7/7, when in July 2005 four coordinated bombs exploded in central London. Three Tube explosions occurred at 8:50 a.m., all within a minute of one another, two on the Circle line and one on the Piccadilly line. Less than an hour later, a fourth bomb detonated on a No. 30 double-decker bus moving along Tavistock Square. The bus was ripped in half. All told, 56 people perished in the bombings, which also injured several hundred. The bus blast caused 13 fatalities. “We are at war and I am a soldier,” said one of the bombers in a pre-recorded video. “Now you too will taste the reality of this situation.”
Today, thankfully, that murderous reality is long gone from Tavistock Square, with its hip energy of adjacent University College and, on the other hand and more peacefully, its inviting green area and statue (ironically enough) of the peacemaker Gandhi still sitting there serenely. While his head is bowed, as if in mourning, he still remains resilient in the face of terrorist violence. Yet one can still find visible history, too, in the form of a small memorial posted to an iron gate on Upper Woburn Place. The names of the dead from the carnage of 7/7 appear there, followed by “London will not forget them and all those who suffered that day.” We passed that somber, easily missed landmark while walking with our friend Mark, on the way to a gastropub for lunch. He had just arrived, and so we were walking at a brisk pace and talking excitedly. You don’t know this, but I held back for a moment and quickly snapped a photo of the memorial, slowing down but still mid-step. Then I ran to catch up with you both. I must tell you, I have been troubled ever since by that small, almost unnoticeable action. It disturbs me, in fact, because it was practically unnoticeable. We were all famished, and I didn’t want to hold us up, but what I did, how I did it, it strikes me now as horrible, or grossly disrespectful at best. And it struck me as such almost immediately: I sensed a group of people slightly behind me, and very likely they witnessed my “swoop in and snap” camera move. O ugly American!
It still makes me cringe, and since then I have thought of Auden’s great final lines from “Muséedes Beaux Arts,” where he describes the ship and that white slip of a boy’s leg above the waves in Breughel’s painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”:
… and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Following that surreptitious, too cavalier moment, I felt like a passenger on that ship of Brueghel’s. I wished to make an observance of the square’s terrible history (and that wish was a genuine one), but I was also happily sailing on with friends, onward to the day’s next pleasure. For the record, I found myself intensely grateful for that mealtime, for the lunch and company both. The living must move on, but a city’s scars are always there to warn us of unpredictable futures, of evils that sometimes invade our blessed days.
After my insensitive moment, we cut through Woburn Walk, a charming stretch with tiny lights in the trees, black facades with white window frames, and curiously specialized shops. This block is cozy and formal at once, and in this respect it may represent my impression of London generally. Still brooding on what had just happened, I noticed a placard in front of what appeared to be a literary-minded hair salon-cum-bookshop. It read, “Books and beauty / for the botched / and bungled.” Amen, I say, and amen.
London Letters, 5
The very houses seem asleep.
As I read your fabulous letter I kept thinking how layered London is. True of any old city, of course, but London seems to show its layers more than most — thanks especially to Blitzes and Zeppelin raids and the like. Consider this: You and our friend Mark Lewis had the pleasure of seeing Measure for Measure at the fine old Almeida Theatre in Islington, no? Well, ten years ago the people of the Almeida interceded in an interesting way for a neighboring north London institution.
But first, let’s go back a century or more, when there was an electrical rail service in London called the Great Northern & City Railway — it survives in transmuted form as the Northern City Line — that needed to generate its own power. So the company built an enormous power station on Poole Street in Islington. By the 1920s the advancing London electrical infrastructure made such a station unnecessary, and the building was bought by, of all things, a film company, Gainsborough Pictures. Gainsborough gutted the building and rebuilt it as studios, with the enormous chimney of the old power station still looming above the landscape, and for the next quarter-century many, many movies were made there. Alfred Hitchcock got his start in films writing scenarios for Gainsborough, then worked as an assistant director. Gainsborough mostly made B-movies with little-known actors — lots of costume dramas — and when this kind of film stopped making money, after World War II, the studios were shut down.
For decades the building sat unused, until in the last years of the 20th century a development company bought it and announced plans to tear it down and build luxury flats in its place. It was at this point that the Almeida Theatre’s management decided that the cinematic history of the building needed at least to be commemorated — and in a very interesting way. They decided to use the empty space for just one season, not to make a film, but to put on … Shakespeare. Two plays by Shakespeare, in fact: Richard II and Coriolanus. And to play the lead in both of those plays, running for a time on alternate nights, they found a pretty good actor, one who had worked for the Almeida many times over the years: Ralph Fiennes.
This was the spring and summer of 2000, and I was blessed to see Fiennes as Coriolanus — he was extraordinary. (And now, I am very pleased to learn, Fiennes is directing a film of the tragedy and will be playing the lead role once more.) A number of my students got to see him in both parts; I envied them that. And the decrepit industrial space was extraordinary as well, a strangely compelling environment in which to see a play about the Roman republic! But two years later the old power station came down, and soon thereafter the luxury flats went up.
And I can’t help noting that if you walk about a mile south of those flats you’ll find yourself in Shoreditch, where, as you know better than I, the first London theater was built, in 1576, by an actor and impresario named James Burbage — and then, just 22 years later, torn down so that its timbers could be carried across the Thames and used to put up the Globe, itself now reconstructed and revivified. Among the people heavily involved in that latter endeavor were one William Shakespeare and his colleague, James Burbage’s son Richard. The younger Burbage was the first man to play several of the most famous roles in the history of drama, and would surely have played both Richard II and Coriolanus.
So, as I say, layers: imagine living in those flats, where before there had been the studio, before that the power station for London’s burgeoning rail system, before that — who knows? Open countryside, probably, like the countryside that once occupied what we now call Trafalgar Square. We are prone to forget the meaning of the name of that church that stands right above the Square, the one where we and your friends Chris and Rachel enjoyed a lovely Evensong: St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When the first parish church was built in that space eight hundred years ago the whole area was nothing but field and pasture. Before that there had been a little chapel for the use of Westminster Abbey’s monks as they tended their crops and herds. So the greening of the square you referred to in your last letter was a way of adding a layer paradoxically: many centuries of history were, however briefly, peeled away, so that St. Martin’s was once more, if you looked at just the right angle and squinted a bit, yes, in the fields.
Everywhere you turn in London you find this kind of thing, as your last letter demonstrated so clearly with its delightful range of reference. I wonder how attentive or inattentive the average Londoner is to all this; I suppose after a while you’d need to shut down your historical consciousness just to be able to navigate through your day. And perhaps even the recently dead, such as those who perished on 7/7, must recede quickly and silently, must be, if not forgotten, at least neglected.
So history is what we forget — but in a place like London it’s always there to be called back, if we choose, and once we start the remembering it’s hard to get to the bottom of it. There’s always one more layer. It’s exciting but also disorienting — I mean, just look at how much we’ve had to do in unpacking the few days we spent there — and indeed London in general is disorienting. The speed and energy and noise and crush of a great city going on and on, making you feel like you’re on a treadmill you want to jump from for just a moment so you can really see that building, that statue, that sign — so you can absorb the history. For that very reason it was pleasant to be walking past Smithfield Market, as we did, on a weekend afternoon when there was little action or traffic. I could think a bit. The energy of London is wonderful, but at times I sympathize with Wordsworth, who could best appreciate London in those rare moments when it was as still and quiet as a remote Lake District vale, and he was too. So I think I’ll end with one more poem, one that runs against the grain of our frantic recent experiences but, perhaps for that reason, is worth a moment’s quiet notice:
Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!
With thanks for this dialogue, I remain
Your botched and bungled friend,
London Letters, 6
Yesterday I read your latest London letter (and last one, alas), and I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew you would have some wonderfully detailed examples of London’s historical layering, which we’ve been discussing for the past few letters.
I’m still thinking about your opening example — what a succession of sites in a single place. The Great Northern & City Railway, its power station, Gainsborough Studios with Hitchcock haunting the sets of B-Movies (!), a single season of Almeida Shakespeare in that same, now terminal space (ephemerality as the heart of theater), and now, in a great climax of history and gentrification … luxury flats. Time comes round. And likewise in your other example: how that “village London” exhibit in Trafalgar Square, turning much of the square into turf again, inadvertently actualized (is this the right word?) the name of the church overlooking it, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. To think of that name being bestowed, and it meant literally! Time comes round. By the way, those Evensong hymns by Cowper and Newman managed to stir in me what our beloved Stuart author Thomas Browne calls an “elevation,” even in my low-energy state at that point.
Well, that Measure for Measure production I caught with Mark may have been ephemeral too, but by bringing it up, you give me the pleasure of briefly remembering that night. First of all, what a great theater. I’ve heard you sing Islington’s praises generally, and so I was excited when Mark and I took a nice stroll to the Almeida there. It was also fun before the show to hear him commend the theater itself for this and that, all said with a director’s eye and the accompanying sense of possibilities the space afforded. Measure for Measure is a comedy, at least technically speaking, although it’s better to use that handy phrase “problem comedy,” which has been applied to this and a few other plays for awhile now. They were all written around the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. He had recently lost his father, and was just entering those haunted, magnificent few years in which he would write his greatest tragedies — besides Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Thus this play is no romantic comedy of lads and lasses, or anything tonally like the high comedies completed just previously — As You Like It, Twelfth Night. Each of those plays features a poignant undersong, like minor notes placed amid the shiny, happy comic strains. “Youth’s a stuff will not endure,” and so forth. Yet in terms of outlook, and weariness, they are worlds away from Measure for Measure, which arguably marks Shakespeare’s Blue Period. We should also take note of a change in literary taste since the days of the comedies of the 1590s and even these final few high comedies. Satire was now all the rage, to the point that a Bishop’s Ban was decreed against such hostile, scabrous works in 1599, as if the very sharpness of their language might cut through England’s social fabric.
No, instead of cakes and ale, Measure for Measure offers nothing less than an examination of the human moral predicament, if “predicament” were strong enough a word. The play makes us confront this brutal fact: we poison ourselves despite ourselves. All of us. It is the human way. And those who seem most upright are very likely the most egregiously dissembling. Seen this way, the lieutenant Angelo appears as the play’s central figure, and in due time we see him transform from a Puritan to a satyr, tormented by his lust for Isabella and willing to use the powers entrusted to him to be “satisfied.” None of the characters is particularly likeable. Isabella is chaste, certainly, but possesses none of the enlivening spirit of, say, Rosalind from As You Like It. And the Duke — what is the Duke’s deal? He seems mystifying, and not entirely trustworthy, from beginning to end. I really hadn’t lived with this remarkable, troubling play for a couple of years, and this production at the Almeida Theatre gave me fresh eyes and ears for it.
Mark and I began our Islington adventure at the Angel Tube stop, and it seems fitting to end this tiny recollection back there, as my friend and I descended on the station’s steep escalator, still discussing the show we’d just seen. Or better yet, I shall end with some grander send-up of that urban wonder that is the London Underground, and the design wonder that is its iconic rail map. So check out this “Transit Map of the World’s Transit Systems” from Frank Jacobs’ Strange Maps (you’ve featured an image from this curious book on your blog, I think) or, even more apropos, given that a Measure for Measure performance was our occasion to travel to the Almeida in the first place, a Shakespeare-themed Tube map: two great UK exports that look great together.
Having riffed on Shakespeare a little, allow me next to mention one last Renaissance writer, Thomas Nashe, a favorite of mine. He’ll help me to begin to think for a moment about what we experience in city life, and what we don’t have to. In his romp of an early-modern novel, The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe follows his picaresque adventurer Jack Wilton to the Low Countries, the Imperial Court, and Renaissance Rome. We see Tudor London only briefly, with sketches of intrigues at Henry VIII’s palace and an outbreak of the sweating sickness, which Nashe describes with all of the visual horrors of filmmakers such as David Lynch or David Cronenberg. (The Internet Movie Database website describes the latter David as “King of Venereal Horror” — that’s quite a title.)
I also think one last time about my research subject, that Tudor traveler William Thomas. He succeeded somehow in returning to favor after his Italian exile, improbably going from disgraced, embezzling courtier to a one-man humanist think tank for the young king, Edward VI. (For the record, I was finally able to consult a number of his works in the British Library manuscript reading room, despite the ongoing strike. A happy ending!) These texts, some of them autographs, are lasting signs of Thomas’ busy period in the center of the Edwardian royal court.
Unfortunately Thomas was also a one-man fortune’s wheel. After achieving, in his words, this great “prosperitie” with King Edward, he swiftly found himself on the outs again when Mary I assumed the throne in 1553. He resisted the queen’s match with Philip of Spain, was caught up in Wyatt’s Rebellion, and was eventually imprisoned and executed. A letter exists, written from outside London once Wyatt’s rebels had entered the city. Thomas has fled to somewhere in Devonshire I think, and nervously asks about his London property, which he soon learns is sacked. (Although you’re right in your last letter — if anyone could find traces of that long-lost Tudor home, it would be Peter Ackroyd!) These aspects of London’s long history — the uprisings and plague and, in our day, the bus bombings — are all happily foreign, of course. Sometimes we must be grateful for narrow urban experiences, for our little dull pinpoint on the timeline.
Well, maybe it’s time that we too shut down our historical consciousness, as you mentioned average Londoners have to do. Like them, we must navigate through our days, today and ahead of us, and not brood too much on ruins or layers or loss. I’d like to spend the rest of this letter, then, making one more attempt at verbalizing what I previously called that vast tonal range so prevalent in city life. My first impression is not promising: our experience of London looks inevitably narrow in this way, too — our times there have been brief, and our sense of the place is limited mainly to the over-exposed central areas, especially Bloomsbury (love it as I do). Take the upshot of your own comment: neither one of us is an “average Londoner,” despite our deep enthusiasm for the city and our fair-to-decent ability to get around it.
There’s an elite London we will surely never see, and geographically I think of the reposing, grey-facaded respectability of Mayfair. (When Henry James spoke of London as “in certain ways the spoiled child of the world,” he had just previously been meditating on “the mind of Mayfair.”) One representative of that world, Conservative leader David Cameron, has just fashioned a coalition making him England’s new Prime Minister. Certainly Cameron has helped to craft a different image of his party in recent years (his jeans, tieless shirt, and habit of bicycling to work come to mind), but class differences nevertheless remain far more formidable in the UK than they are in the States. And Alan, when the Tory MP Sir Nicholas Winterton describes those “totally different kind of people” whom he would rather not have to travel with or near, well, he’s talking about us — if, that is, we somehow rose above the level of tourists anyhow. (And you and I, we’re the worst sort — overly amiable, thus slightly suspicious or off-putting, southern and midwestern American tourists!)
We also never see the countless out-of-the-way neighborhoods, with urban realities far different from Mayfair’s. A rougher, quotidian existence prevails. Me, I think of the East End at this point, but I realize I do so in the most general, know-nothing terms, based on warnings I’ve received, articles read, etc. The centuries-old reputation of East London remains influential, as an area where poverty, crime, and overcrowding wreak urban havoc amid the docks and rookeries. Although it is still an impoverished area, I learned a lot from Sophie Howarth’s recent article on her favorite spots in her East End neighborhood, such as Broadway Market or the The Royal Oak café on Columbia Road. Her survey appeared in the premier issue of a new travel magazine, Afar. Howarth (founder of an interesting “social enterprise” on Marchmont Street, quite near where we were staying) quickly gives us outsiders a different impression, or rather one with more depth and complexity — two things required for any genuine encounter with a neighborhood.
And yet, despite these constrained circumstances — limitations of experience or imagination, our lazy reliance on generalities — it’s easy to sense and savor that tonal range that interests me, the bizarre assembly of high and low things overheard, the funny and absurd side by side with the horrific, and all finessed further by the kind of serendipity that intense urban density makes possible. Furthermore, it all takes place simultaneously, so that the historical layering we’re speaking of collapses and flattens out. To create, what? Not chronological layers in this case but, hmmm, would accordion folds be a useful metaphor here?
At some level, this tonal variety springs forth from human personality itself, with all of its delights and repulsions, its capacities for actions good and bad, its attention to the trifling or world-changing. This shouldn’t be surprising—what is a city, after all, but a concrete hive bustling with human personalities? I might as well acknowledge the ugly and difficult side first. Alan, do you remember that lovely Sunday evening with our friends in St. John’s Wood, visiting their neighborhood free house? Well, I have just heard that this enviable neighborhood, home to the American embassy community and popular because of the Beatles’ Abbey Road Studios nearby, has been hit by a string of muggings. (“And tired like me with follies and with crimes,” writes Samuel Johnson in “London,” a poem based on a satire by Juvenal, an earlier mocker of urban ills.) More darkly, on a perfect and perfectly sunny early spring morning when we enjoyed coffee and the papers, I read in The Observer about a ghastly crime. A Yorkshire man had stabbed his ex-partner’s mother and then written a message to his ex on the wall, in blood: “________ you, Claire.” The assailant eventually jumped to his death from a car park. These are horror stories, and cities endure them, and their citizens live through them, or do not.
It’s better to have the quiet life, a demanding one even or one of drudgery, trudging step by step through a quiet career. One day we awaited friends in front of the Royal Exchange, still an impressive sight. It was all the mercantile rage under Elizabeth I. Our best equivalent may be the Dallas Cowboys’ grandiose new stadium. As I glanced across the square at the tall doors of the Bank of England, a guy walked up from his motorbike and knocked on that imposing entrance. A young businessman soon appeared, and accepted take-out in exchange for a few pound notes. The doors dwarfed this common transaction, making it somehow comical. Within, employees were working hard on a Sunday afternoon, eating from Styrofoam for the sake of finance. And better this life, moving along, than sheer indifference, where those without means or facing adversities are met with pitilessness. I’m thinking of Peter Ackroyd again, this time his novel The Lambs of London. There we meet that eclectic essayist and opium-eater Thomas de Quincy. He first comes to the city and knows not a soul. Finally a distant kinsman allows him to stay in a “deserted, broken-down house in Berners Street.” On his first night there, he discovers a housemate, Anna. “I don’t mind the rats,” she says. “But I mind the ghosts.” Hers, we learn, “was a familiar London history of want, neglect, and hardship that made her seem older than she truly was.” They soon become friends, and together walk the city’s streets. Anna nurses Thomas through a fever. He has to travel to Winchester, and returning five days later, finds Anna gone. “She disappeared from the face of London as suddenly and as completely as if she had sunk beneath an ocean.”
These examples refuse to step aside, yet what a meager visualization this is, gaunt in its attention and urban rendering. To focus only on what Henry James calls the “miles and miles of the dreariest, stodgiest commonness” is to become equally stodgy, to be parsimonious in tone. “The heart tends to grow hard in her company,” he remarks elsewhere about London. There may be some truth to this, as with that anonymity cultivated so easily in cities, or habits of passing easily by. “London is so clumsy and so brutal,” he also says. I suspect James and I would disagree as to the precise merits of clumsiness. (Listen to me — arguing now with the author of The American!) For me, this is one of the treasured parts of city life. All of the clumsy, silly things. I cannot help but smile when remembering that pub placard we saw near the British Museum – “EAT! Come in and celebrate 150 years of fish and chips.” Or how about GoodEnough College? A recruitment advert for MI–5, seen on the Piccadilly line, also risks absurdity:
“Notice the last person to get off the train? Could you describe that person? You may be able to help protect the UK if you have observant skills. / / Don’t tell others about your application.”
You and I encountered plenty of heartiness in London, too. The London-raised Irish playwright Martin McDonagh claims that he recently moved to New York after growing tired of Londoners’ rudeness, but I typically haven’t experienced this. They can, though, be a surprisingly colorful lot. Walk around London (or any city) with the barest willingness to play the eavesdropper. It will always yield color of a linguistic sort. As I strolled by a cluster of students near University College, I heard one exclaim, “Well that’s such a Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell moment, isn’t it?” The fellow had just placed his friend within an intergenerational lineage of British rakes. Another version of extreme intonation is the polite lilt. “Are you done then?” asked the British Library employee in the rare-book room. “Lovely then.” To use an exclamation point there would exaggerate the delivery. Helium moment at first, with faint smile, but then downshifting quickly. The British use of “isn’t it?”, though, is more like an expressive work of art: two short, bland words in a rhetorical question, yet capable of stiletto uses. The golfer Padraig Harrington recently used it thus, to comment on Tiger Woods’ behavior. The phrase “particularly fetching” is also tonally resourceful — but to different effect.
Here are a few British-English words or portmanteaus tickling my brain lately: hot-desking (wi-fi work at cafÉ tables), barmy (“we are barmy in the depths of recession”), candy floss (our cotton candy). I noticed ads for “Vitabiotic,” which sounds like the healthiest something or other ever sold. If you’re not a black-coffee person, you may prefer a Flat White, as in “velvety smooth Flat White.” British English is more inventive in its euphemisms. Consider, for example, the phrase “the Anglo-Saxon tetragram.” Its sentences often mix words that we would find tonally exclusive, so that a tabloid headline might read, “Essex girl appalled by distended tummy. Icky.” Similarly, do you recall those two gobs on our train to Heathrow? Restless, glancing about, they seemed like a pair straight out of a Pinter play. Yet I remember one asking the other, “What’s wrong? Just a sore belly?” I half expected one guy to scratch and coo at the other’s stomach. Then there are verbs: to nip, to nick. A while ago, a Wimbledon billboard announced the benefits of a remote shut-down command if one’s cell phone were stolen. It’s one of my all-time favorite examples of English: “If it’s nicked, it’s knackered.”
We need these nimble, eclectic displays of language because our lives are just so. Shortly after we reached our hotel room, I flipped through a front-desk copy of Time Out London and was struck by the human activities on a given Saturday. There was the Starting Over Show at the Hilton Metropol on Edgeware Road: “A show for people going through life-changing challenges such as divorce, separation, illness or bereavement. Exhibitors include hypnotherapists, lawyers, financial advisors and life counselors.” A concurrent event called Desire sold jewelry and silverware. There was a screen-printing class, a Violin Makers’ Day. And there was the Flirting and Walking Tour of London, beginning at the National Portrait Gallery and “uncovering flirting hotspots including art galleries, bookstores and supermarkets.” It continued, “The evening includes practical exercises based on theories around body language and stepping outside your comfort zone.”
I marvel at this range, these tones, this myriad living — or the haphazardly mingling energies of Camden Town, or Wordsworth’s lines, brought up in your last letter: “This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, … / And all that mighty heart is lying still!”
That sense of coming to, of potential that may burst into life and strife and noble motion at any minute, also reminds me of Keats’ phrase, “‘Tis might half slumb’ring on its own right arm“ (and in turn, with a nod above, Isabella’s words to Angelo, by which she urges mercy for her condemned brother Claudio: ”O, it is excellent / To have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant“).
It seems fitting to wrap up my last, less than little flight of urban fancy with a regretful list, a compilation of a few books I wish I hadn’t passed on — born of a mix of necessary frugality, a lack of appreciation for our overseas setting, foolhardy overpacking related to research, and, redeeming it all, a remembrance of spousal wishes. They include an inexpensive paperback of Tyndale’s New Testament (would have been perfect for a friend); Peter Hall’s Shakespeare’s Advice to the Players; Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, a play that is all the rage in London at present, thanks to Mark Rylance’s universally praised turn as Johnny ”Rooster” Byron, a Blakean ex-daredevil biker, strangely moving drug dealer, and squatter who lives in a metal trailer in Wiltshire (by the way, Alan, thanks for lending me your copy after we returned home; it took the edge off of my wistfulness); various editions of Simon Armitage’s poems; Shakespeare’s Individualism, a brand new academic title by Peter Holbrook, and Anne Barton’s Essays, Mainly Shakespearean; a little volume on Ariosto, spotted in a shop on Charing Cross and, again, perfect for a friend; a new (to me) collected edition of Michael Donaghy’s fine poetry, an edition that I still imagine on the shelf at Foyles, as if impassively waiting for me to choose more wisely next time; Elizabeth Jennings’ New Collected Poems; Joseph O’Neill’s 2008 novel Netherland at one of the Oxfam bookshops; and a beautiful modern edition of the Wyclifite Bible in the British Library bookstore.
So when can we return and obtain some of these foolishly underappreciated (though hardly overlooked) volumes?
Cheers, and cheerio — only for now, I hope, with more adventures ahead …