Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: london (page 1 of 1)

Tom McTague:

Being in London this week has been like having your home teleported somewhere else: You look around and everything is the same, but isn’t. The air is like Florida’s, hot and heavy to touch, the haze like a postcard of Los Angeles. My son went to school this morning in shorts, a vest, and a baseball cap that he turned backwards, as if he were actually in America. A mosquito buzzed in my ear as I sat in my darkened living room, the curtains drawn tight to keep the sun out. We don’t have air-conditioning in England, you see. That is the kind of thing people have in other countries, where the weather is extreme, where you go indoors to escape the heat—and where there are mosquitoes. 

I just wrote an email to my friend Adam Roberts, who, like almost everyone in southern England and Western Europe, has been having a rough go of it: 

Two years ago, when we had the Big Freeze here in Texas — three days without power, 35º F in most of the house, some warmth generated in one room only and by a rapidly diminishing supply of firewood (a friend eventually brought some over in his pickup) — the people responsible for the power generating stations said that their equipment wasn’t prepared for that kind of cold, and why should it have been, it was a freakish thing, once in a lifetime, etc. To which more reasonable people replied that that excuse works only once at most. From now on, they said, given the swings of temperature that we’ll surely be seeing, the Texas power grid will need to prepare for cold the way it prepares for heat.

It seems to me that the opposite may need to happen in northern Europe: an infrastructure preparing for heat the way it prepares for cold. And a mild-weathered place like Britain might need to invest in better preparation for both ends of the thermometer.

Fortunately, your nation and my state are blessed with exceptionally competent governments — they really know how to Level Up!!

Iain Sinclair · Diary: The Plutocrat Tour · LRB 7 July 2022:

Heading west towards Woolwich and the remains of the Royal Arsenal, with its buried munitions and restored warehouses, I came upon a stretch of park at Gallions Reach that promised to be the hoped-for resolution of my quest for a General Theory of Everything. This managed landscape was electively megalithic, conceived and delivered on top of an older park in 2017. It looked like a direct translation from Wiltshire, from Silbury Hill with its satellite earthworks. Somebody had been playing with contaminated soil trenched out from the Royal Arsenal. Alluvium, silt and clay, the spoil of local development, had been shaped into a set of humps worthy of the physician and antiquarian William Stukeley. Gallions Hill, a conical mound with gentle helical paths, was the dominant feature. Neo-paganism and sloganised futurism came together as part of the post-Thatcher colonisation of East London. The mounds scattered through new estates in the Olympic Park were contrived with earth dug out for the Channel Tunnel. Beckton Alps, across the river, was a ritual viewing platform, now fenced off and protected, a sculpture made from arsenic and toxic ash from the bombed gasworks.

As a series of ritual tests, I worked my way from the lesser mounds, not knowing if they contained buried mechanical diggers or sacrificed bones of First World War munitions workers, to the breast of the ‘mother hill’, which was encircled by a perimeter fence. Closing in now on a great secret, I scrambled to the summit, noticing that another knapsacked figure, about my own age, was making a more measured ascent by way of the helical path. We met at the compass point indicated on the flattened viewing platform. I did not ask the name of my fellow pilgrim and I did not offer my own, but we enjoyed a long and enlightening conversation. From this height, the spread of habitation, in all directions, clarified the day’s story. The Gallions Reach view offered a route map into past and future.

There’s only one Iain Sinclair. A decade back I wrote a longish essay about him for Books & Culture. (I can’t help smiling at the quirk British lefties have of designating everything bad done by Tony Blair as “post-Thatcher.” As though Blair were no more than a misty emanation of the terrible Iron Lady — which, come to think of it, is just what people like Sinclair think he was.)


My friend Adam Roberts has written extensively about this book, but because I knew I wanted to read it, I have avoided reading Adam’s account. I’ll now go back to see what he says, which may make me repent of everything I say here. But there’s value in just getting your thoughts down without too much editing. Also: many spoilers ahead. 

H. G. Wells’s Tono-Bungay is a powerful but oddly constructed novel. It’s a bit difficult to describe that structure but here are what I believe to be the key elements:

1) It is most famously a story about commerce, and especially commerce based in advertising. Tono-Bungay is a patent medicine that does no one any good and might do them a little bit of harm – though its inventor, Edward Ponderevo, thinks that it might have positive psychological benefits that would justify his selling it. (Placebo effect, etc.) So the part of the novel most often commented on, what many critics would describe as the story, is about how Tono-Bungay is manufactured, advertised, and distributed throughout the United Kingdom. The business is, of course, a house of cards that is bound to collapse and eventually does.

2) But this is also a story about a man who is repeatedly thwarted in love. George Ponderevo, the narrator and protagonist, has a failed marriage, some casual affairs, and an unrequited or at least unfulfilled love for a woman – named, ironically enough, Beatrice – whom he meets when they are children and whom he definitively loses when they are middle-aged. One of the first important scenes in the book concerns his initial infatuation with Beatrice and – except for a coda which I will describe later – the book concludes with his final sight of her. (Because they are mismatched socially, the whole situation is quite like that of like Pip and Estella, with the unhappy rather than the happy ending.) Because his love for Beatrice is so prominent at the beginning and at the end of the novel, and because the middle of the novel is so occupied by his failed marriage to a woman named Marion, if I had to say whether this book is a story about commerce in advertising or a story about failed love, I would choose the latter.

3) The third element of the story is a contrast between the fixed character of social life in the world of English countryside and its small towns — a world controlled by a declining and ossifying aristocracy — and the immense energy and mobility of life in London. After early chapters establishing the rigidity of life on a country estate where George’s mother is the housekeeper, and in a sleepy small town dominated by another aristocratic family, the scene moves to London. We’re then treated to an extended panoramic celebration of the city narrated by the awestruck young George. “I got London at last with an exceptional freshness of effect, as the sudden revelation of a whole unsuspected other side to life.” More:

I came to it on a dull and smoky day by the South Eastern Railway, and our train was half an hour late, stopping and going on and stopping again. I marked beyond Chiselhurst the growing multitude of villas, and so came stage by stage through multiplying houses and diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass to regions of interlacing railway lines, big factories, gasometers and wide reeking swamps of dingy little homes, more of them and more and more. The number of these and their dinginess and poverty increased, and here rose a great public house and here a Board School and there a gaunt factory; and away to the east there loomed for a time a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. The congestion of houses intensified and piled up presently into tenements; I marveled more and more at this boundless world of dingy people; whiffs of industrial smell, of leather, of brewing, drifted into the carriage; the sky darkened, I rumbled thunderously over bridges, van-crowded streets, peered down on and crossed the Thames with an abrupt eclat of sound. I got an effect of tall warehouses, of grey water, barge crowded, of broad banks of indescribable mud, and then I was in Cannon Street Station — a monstrous dirty cavern with trains packed across its vast floor and more porters standing along the platform than I had ever been in my life before. I alighted with my portmanteau and struggled along, realising for the first time just how small and weak I could still upon occasion feel. In this world, I felt, an Honours medal in Electricity and magnetism counted for nothing at all.

Afterwards I drove in a cab down a canyon of rushing street between high warehouses, and peeped up astonished at the blackened greys of Saint Paul’s. The traffic of Cheapside — it was mostly in horse omnibuses in those days — seemed stupendous, its roar was stupendous; I wondered where the money came from to employ so many cabs, what industry could support the endless jostling stream of silk-hatted, frock-coated, hurrying men.

This contrast between country and city is really key to everything else: surely Tono-Bungay is one of the great London novels. When Edward Ponderevo, George’s uncle, lives in a small town, trying to eke out a living as a chemist, he continually complains about the impossibility of making anything happen in such a catatonic place, and only when he is forced by bankruptcy to move to London and take up a menial job does he actually have the opportunity to create Tono-Bungay – and more important, to create a market for Tono-Bungay. It is the concentration of people in London that enables his creation to go viral. London, the viral city, in multiple ways.

London also puts people in touch with one another who in the countryside or in small towns would either not meet at all or meet only in constrained circumstances. George marries Marion, whom he has little in common with – something he comes to understand even before their marriage – but it’s only because they both live in London that they ever encounter one another. They have certain trivial habits or quasi-interests in common; everything between them arose from a chance encounter of strangers, the kind that almost never happens in the countryside but happens a dozen times a day in London. Their marriage ends because George has an affair with a young woman who works as a typist for his company – again, a connection that only the energy, congestion, and economic drive of the city makes possible.

It is noteworthy that George’s failed relationship with Beatrice happens almost wholly in the countryside, while his failed marriage to Marion happens in the city. His love for Beatrice is doomed by a world that’s too inflexible; his attachment to Marion – which he sees as a “hunger,” not as genuine romantic love – is produced by a world that’s too unbounded.

So one of the things that Wells wants to talk about here is London as a kind of universal solvent, a force powerful enough to disintegrate the long-established social structures of British life, and while we know where Wells’s sympathies lie – he despises the old division of social classes – nevertheless he is quite aware that a universal solvent will occasionally end up dissolving things that shouldn’t be dissolved.

At the end of the book, we get an epilogue in which we’re treated to another vista of London, this time as it appears from the Thames:

To run down the Thames so is to run one’s hand over the pages in the book of England from end to end. One begins in Craven Reach and it is as if one were in the heart of old England. Behind us are Kew and Hampton Court with their memories of Kings and Cardinals, and one runs at first between Fulham’s episcopal garden parties and Hurlingham’s playground for the sporting instinct of our race. The whole effect is English. There is space, there are old trees and all the best qualities of the home-land in that upper reach. Putney, too, looks Anglican on a dwindling scale. And then for a stretch the newer developments slop over, one misses Bladesover [the country house in which the book begins] and there come first squalid stretches of mean homes right and left and then the dingy industrialism of the south side, and on the north bank the polite long front of nice houses, artistic, literary, administrative people’s residences, that stretches from Cheyne Walk nearly to Westminster and hides a wilderness of slums. What a long slow crescendo that is, mile after mile, with the houses crowding closelier, the multiplying succession of church towers, the architectural moments, the successive bridges, until you come out into the second movement of the piece with Lambeth’s old palace under your quarter and the houses of Parliament on your bow! Westminster Bridge is ahead of you then, and through it you flash, and in a moment the round-faced clock tower cranes up to peer at you again and New Scotland Yard squares at you, a fat beef-eater of a policeman disguised miraculously as a Bastille.

We are moving through time: from the ancient English countryside to the city whose function was, for a long time, to consolidate the power of the rural elite, and now into modernity:

And then the traditional and ostensible England falls from you altogether. The third movement begins, the last great movement in the London symphony, in which the trim scheme of the old order is altogether dwarfed and swallowed up. Comes London Bridge, and the great warehouses tower up about you, waving stupendous cranes, the gulls circle and scream in your ears, large ships lie among their lighters, and one is in the port of the world. Again and again in this book I have written of England as a feudal scheme overtaken by fatty degeneration and stupendous accidents of hypertrophy.

Somehow we have moved, in the course of one novel and about forty years, from social sclerosis to “fatty degeneration.” Varieties of poor health: one world in which, as Edward Ponderevo always said, “nothing happens,” and another in which too much is happening; atrophy and hypertrophy. “Amidst it all no plan appears, no intention, no comprehensive desire. That is the very key of it all. Each day one feels that the pressure of commerce and traffic grew, grew insensibly monstrous, and first this man made a wharf and that erected a crane, and then this company set to work and then that, and so they jostled together to make this unassimilable enormity of traffic.”

And from there out into the Sea – the strongest possible contrast. “The river passes — London passes, England passes…”

Wells tries at the end of the story to make an accounting of What It All Means, but I will set that aside. I think what he narrates tells a rather different story than what he means to tell, though in a way he knows that there is a key “symbol,” as he calls it, here. George Ponderevo is making this final passage through London on a warship, a “destroyer” that he has built. It’s worth noting that he had begun his career as an engineer in the immediate aftermath of his divorce from Marion; and has returned to it after his final goodbye to Beatrice. A classic case of sublimation: “Eros, builder of cities” – but in this case Eros, builder of warships. At this point George has seen the loss of some he loves and the deaths of others; indeed, he himself is a murderer; and after the failure of all his loves he motors down the Thames and through the great city of London as an avatar of Thanatos. And that, I think, is what this powerful and sad book is all about: not the manic energies of Commerce but rather the end of Eros and the triumph of Thanatos.

Cosmati pavement coloured star pattern jpg

The Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey: “In the year of Christ one thousand two hundred and twelve plus sixty minus four, the third King Henry, the city, Odoricus and the abbot put these porphyry stones together. If the reader wisely considers all that is laid down, he will find here the end of the primum mobile.” From a story in the Guardian: “Only a handful of brass letters remains of the original long inscription, but it was transcribed centuries ago. It names the king, the chief craftsman as Odoricus, gives the date in a tortuous riddle, and then mysteriously suggests that the world will last for 19,683 years, by adding together the life spans of different animals: “add dogs and horses and men, stags and ravens, eagles, enormous whales….” 

Cosmati pavement 2010 photomosaic jpg

Collett’s England

IMG 2329

One of Auden’s favorite books was Anthony Collett’s The Changing Face of England (1926), and it’s easy to see why — it’s absolutely delightful. Here’s a passage from the chapter seen above: 

It is curious to see how floods restore the ancient aspect of the valley landscape, by overflowing the modern chequer-work of fences and hedges, and showing where floods held the field before. Only new houses are flooded when Thames or Medway, or any stream of the populous half-urban valleys, breaks bounds. Bungalows become uninhabitable, swans cruise through rose-beds, but the old farmhouses stand securely dryshod, though scarcely fifty yards from the insurgent water, and perched on so slight a rise as to be invisible until the water came. Old farms and cottages were built with exact knowledge, from experience and tradition, of how far the flood would reach. New houses are plumped down into the channels by which the river disgorges, as though it would never return. 

And a luminous passage from another chapter, on Epping Forest

Yet even in England, woods with a touch of the terror of infinity still survive; and it is one of the strangest things about Epping Forest that, for all its nearness to the East End of London, and its permeation from end to end with the noise of traffic, it yields not only a hundred delightful pictures of the cheerful greenwood, but one or two of the more ancient and formidable type. From the hamlet of Baldwin’s Hill, near Loughton — red omnibuses run close behind it — there is a view across a narrow valley to a flank of the forest rising, beech beyond beech, hornbeam beyond hornbeam, pollarded and rounded, and innumerable as sheep streaming downhill to water, which is full of the true forest sense. Those who walk in the forest soon learn that the great road to Epping and the eastern counties is never a mile away, and that the air is seldom empty of its rumour. But while the ear tells continually of London, the eye carries us far back into Shakespeare’s age, and the old time beyond. Dull streets cease abruptly at the forest’s edge; the bell of the muffin-man echoes on autumn afternoons among the beech-boles hacked by spotted woodpeckers. Silence falls a moment, and we hear the deer belling in the glades; it is one step from Bethnal Green into Broceliande.

a road not taken

Lately I have been reading some of the wartime letters of Dorothy Sayers — who, I have just learned, pronounced her name to rhyme with “stairs” — and have been constantly reminded of something that I wrote about a bit in my Year of Our Lord 1943: the complex network, centered of course in London, of Christians working outside of standard ecclesiastical channels to bring a vibrant Christian faith before the minds of the people of England in the midst of war. People like J. H. Oldham and Philip Mairet and, perhaps above all, James Welch of the BBC — who convinced Dorothy Sayers to write the radio plays that came to be called The Man Born to be King, recruited C. S. Lewis to give the broadcast talks that became Mere Christianity, and commissioned music from Ralph Vaughan Williams — ended up having an impact on the public face of English Christianity that was enormous but is now almost completely unknown.

At one point in researching my book I thought seriously about throwing out my plans and writing this story instead — but I couldn’t bear to let go of the fascinating interplay between ideas being articulated in England and their close siblings arising in the U.S., especially in New York City.

I can’t remember whether I’ve mentioned it here before — a quick search suggests not — but I have long dreamed of writing a book called Christian London: a history of the distinctive and often profoundly influential role that London has played in the history of Christianity. However, no one I have spoken to about this project — my agent, various editors, friends — has shared my enthusiasm. I might write it one day anyhow, and if I do, people like Oldham and Mairet and Welch will be major characters in one chapter.

but how far Underground?

This is amazing. Daniel Silva has created a series of maps showing just how far underground any given station of the London Underground is. Note that the brown dotted line traces the changes in ground elevation, while the blue line below shows the depth of the railway. Some of the lines (like the Victoria, above) maintain a general consistency of depth in relation to the ground, but others don’t. Silva has created a simple representation of what had to have been some very complicated engineering decisions.

London’s “nightmare scenario“

Before Britain voted last summer to leave the European Union, Crossrail was conceived for a London open to the world and speeding into the future. Now, with Brexit, the nightmare scenario is that this massive project, to provide more trains moving more people more quickly through a growing city, ends up moving fewer people more quickly through a shrinking city.

– The New York Times. A lightly-trafficked London train system strikes me as the least likely ”nightmare scenario” ever (also, from a visitor’s point of view, one of the least nightmarish).


We’re in a society that thinks entirely about faith, because of our sense of encroachment by Islam, and our defiance against that because we have our own way of being, which of course is based in Christianity. But no one is Christian. So we’re trying to defend an ideal which we can’t really define ourselves, which we almost entirely don’t believe in. And we’re coming up against something which is quite overwhelming and encroaching and dictatorial – some aspects of Islam – and yet at another level, there’s something so beautiful and glorious about it. And so I feel as if this conflict is entirely about faith, and yet the one thing no one wants to talk about is faith.

Nicola Barker

the shooting gallery

Day and night addicted people come and go by the dozens through once-boarded windows. Some get high and collapse onto mattresses. Some come looking for prostitutes. Others have made it a home. Even in the depths of addiction, they are drawn to the familiar, the normal. First, a library lawn, now a church.

“I know it’s probably not the right thing to do,” said Josh Green, who is 28 and originally from Kensington. For three months he has been sleeping on blankets in the filth of a lower church office. “But I honestly feel a little more comfortable because I know I am in God’s house.”

— Once the Cathedral of Kensington, now a heroin shooting gallery

theatrical memories

Recently, Teri and I have been watching both Victoria and The Crown — an interesting pair of experiences which I may say something about in a future post — and one of the pleasures of both series has been Alex Jennings, who in The Crown plays the oleaginous and embittered  Duke of Windsor (i.e., the abdicated Edward VIII), and in Victoria plays the oleaginous and manipulative King Leopold of Belgium.

All of which reminds me that I first saw Jennings in 1990, at the Phoenix Theatre in London, playing Hjalmar Ekdal in Ibsen’s The Wild Duck alongside David Threlfall’s Gregers Werle. It was a magnificent production, and one of the reasons I remember it is that Teri and I had an extremely intense argument about it on our walk back to our hotel in Bloomsbury. All I can remember about the debate is that she thought the production was weighted towards the perspective of one character and I thought it was weighted towards the perspective of the other — which suggests that it was actually an ideal theatrical endeavor, capable of producing very different reactions in equally intelligent and attentive viewers. Even now I remember with great vividness the set, and a handful of crucial scenes.

I had already seen Threlfall on TV, in his amazing performance as Leslie Titmuss in John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed — I can still see him in my mind’s eye, a working-class boy listening with passionate intensity to the radio and trying to mimic the BBC announcers’ intonations (in the days before the BBC thought it should represent the varieties of British speech patterns) — but Jennings was new to me, and was simply electric as Hjalmar. It’s so good to see him still at work.


The Museum at war

The British Museum:

Britain officially entered the First World War on 4 August 1914. This is a look back at some of the measures the Museum took to cope with the threat of war.

During the First World War there was a new wartime threat – the air raid. Early air raids were carried out mostly by Zeppelins (airships), as few aeroplanes had long enough ranges to be effective or the ability to carry worthwhile quantities of munitions by 1914 and 1915. This archive photograph shows how objects in the Museum were protected against German air raids. Many of the large sculptures were too heavy to move and were protected in situ. The Egyptian gallery is eerily quiet, with the sculptures hidden away behind walls of sandbags.

This work is by war artist Henry Rushbury, who was 25 when war broke out. He served as an aircraft mechanic with the Royal Flying Corps (precursor to the Royal Air Force) during the war and earned the rank of sergeant. In 1918 he was invited by the Ministry of Information to become an official war artist, and sent out to depict scenes of life in London. He produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the ‘sand-bagging’ of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. In this scene three sculptures in the Egyptian gallery have been surrounded by sandbags – Rushbury has labelled them as Amenhotep I, Amenhotep III and the goddess Sekhet.

The most important portable antiquities (such as the Rosetta Stone) were transferred to a station on the newly completed Postal Tube Railway, 15 metres below the surface of Holborn. Bombs did land on Holborn during the war, but no objects were damaged. Books, manuscripts, prints and drawings went in fifteen van loads to the National Library of Wales in their new buildings at Aberystwyth. This was such a westerly location that the threat of air raids was substantially diminished – aircraft at the time did not have the range to fly a return mission this far from the continent, and there were few strategic targets immediately nearby.

No damage was inflicted on the British Museum during the First World War, with the nearest bombs being dropped on Smithfield and Holborn.


I’m working in the British Library this morning and it feels like sanity, you know? People of all shapes and sizes and colors seeking to discover and share knowledge. I think of what old AEH says in Stoppard’s The Invention of Love:

“A scholar’s business is to add to what is known. That is all. But it is capable of giving the very greatest satisfaction, because knowledge is good. It does not have to look good or even sound good or even do good. It is good just by being knowledge. And the only thing that makes it knowledge is that it is true. You can’t have too much of it and there is no little too little to be worth having. There is truth and falsehood in a comma.”

So here we all are, seeking to know truth from falsehood, in a miscopied line or an artfully told tale or even, yes, in a comma. I’m writing this while sitting twenty feet from a copy of the Magna Carta, a few words with the power to restrain the whims of a proud King; and the Codex Sinaiticus, a big book full of Good News about God’s love for us.

There are wicked books too, of course, and people who use good books wickedly. But for the moment it’s comforting to be here among the records of the wise and the living, breathing bodies of those seeking wisdom. It feels sane. It feels safe. Not everyone has either sanity or safety.


The ancient Greeks saw the Celts as warlike peoples whose strange customs set them apart from the civilised Mediterranean world. Writing around 60–30 BC, Greek historian Diodorus Siculus described Celtic peoples wearing horned helmets into battle.

This helmet was cast into the River Thames over 2,000 years ago, perhaps as an offering to the gods. It was dredged from the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge in the early 1860s. It is the only Iron Age helmet to have ever been found in southern England, and it is the only Iron Age helmet with horns ever to have been found anywhere in Europe. Horns were often a symbol of the gods in different parts of the ancient world. This might suggest the person who wore this was a special person, or that the helmet was made for a god to wear. The helmet is made from sheet bronze pieces held together with many carefully placed bronze rivets. Its swirling decoration may have carried hidden meanings.

Ancient Greek warriors wore less elaborate headgear, like this helmet. Greek writing can still be understood, unlike the enigmatic Celtic designs on the horned helmet.

Horned helmet. River
Thames near Waterloo, London, England, 200–100 BC.

Greek helmet.
Olympia, south-western Greece, around 460 BC.

See these amazing objects in our exhibition Celts: art and identity, until 31 January 2016.

from an intricate hand-drawn map of London