Authors: Anna Quindlen
That's a good bit to quote in your own work from someone else's, but it so vividly illustrates the point that London makes: that it has been known, and known by experts. (And another point, too, not confined to
London; Lytton Strachey may not have thought well of
but like many brilliant British critics throughout the course of human existence, he was full of it.) This is a great gift to resident and visitor alike, but it is tough on those of us who search for fresh and individual ways to describe it. But the attempt must be made, the pilgrimage taken. What are all those small, oval, enameled plaques but a goad to the daunted spirit, a flag with the legend “It can be done!” By H. G. Wells and Elizabeth Bowen, by John Keats and Somerset Maugham. There are more than seven hundred of the plaques, and that, too, carries a double message: so much has been said, but many voices can be heard.
That is why, on my latest trip to the city, I came with my eldest child, my writer son. A bit of background psychological, not geographic: It became clear to me that Sigmund Freud was on to something with his Oedipal theory several years ago, when the boy began to become a man. Part of his passage into adulthood, I understood, was to separate from me convincingly through a prolonged period of covert removal and outright rejection. I suspected this was bad for him; I knew for a fact that it was bad for me. So I determined that I was going to transmute our relationship slowly from one of mother and son to one of writer and writer.
Take that, Dr. Freud.
(There is, by the by, a Freud museum in North London, in the house where he lived after fleeing Vienna once the Nazis came goosestepping in. It contains the master's original couch, as well as a Freud gift shop. I have never been there, perhaps because it is more entertaining to imagine the gift shop in my mind's eye, perhaps because the whole theory of penis envy still makes me, to use a persistent literary Englishism, quite cross.)
The ruse worked, and never more splendidly than when I brought my son, then nineteen, to act as another set of eyes, ears, and constantly moving feet while I considered imaginary London. But it was not simply to persuade him of the brilliance of Dickens or the wit of Thackeray or the art of Woolf that I brought him, or set him to work rummaging through my old books for passages that spoke to him. (“Can you remember why you marked this?” he said to me once about a line in Yeats, a moment when we agreed to disagree about our tastes and writerly inclinations.) It was to hand down the possibility without the fear, the greatness without the intimidation. And the legacy. Herewith the world of Chaucer and Browning, T. S. Eliot and Graham Greene. You are a writer; you are welcome here.
“Are you intimidated by London?” I asked.
“Why?” he said.
Youth may be wasted on the young, as George Bernard Shaw once said, but not always.
t's ironic that much of this literary pedigree began in what is now one of London's least atmospheric areas. Southwark certainly has more cachet now than it had only a few decades ago, but it is the luster of its resurrection, not of its long rich history. The name reflects its location; it's that big bump on the map south of the Thames that seems to push the river closer to the Strand and the Tower and all those better-known places that lie on the north side. There used to be a standing joke that to go to Southwark you needed a visa, in the same way Manhattanites like to joke about the other four boroughs of New York City.
Yet its literary pedigree is greater than that of Bloomsbury or the Inns of Court or any of the other London neighborhoods that have housed writers and their imagined characters. Because it was long ago the last great stopping-off place before London Bridge, then chockablock with houses all its length, it was a kind of frontier London, just beyond the reach of its laws and its social mores, a welter of taverns, gambling houses, and various other dens of iniquity. The pilgrims in
The Canterbury Tales
start their journey “in Southwerk at the Tabard.” Shakespeare's Globe was there, and it's said he lived in Southwark when he did some of his best work. Samuel Pepys apparently watched the Great Fire of London from a tavern on the Bankside.
And in Lant Street in Southwark, the young Dickens took up residence while the rest of his family was nearby in the Marshalsea, the long-gone debtors' prison in which whole families lived, some with drapes and sideboards and pewter plate, until their debts could be settled. More than Doughty Street the area pays tribute to the master: Leigh Hunt Street and Weller Street are named for Pickwickians, and Little Dorrit Church is not far away.
Those rich, often criminal days on the South Bank slipped away. Twenty years after the Great Fire to the north there was another that devastated Southwark. Many of its old buildings were pulled down in attempts at what we now call urban renewal, and the German bombers turned much of that to rubble. For many years it was a ruin, the part of London that, despite its extraordinary history, tourists never went to see.
Little Dorrit Church, Southwark
Now it is one of the areas that draw them most consistently, although for someone seeking the atmospherics of old London, venerable London, imagined London, it is a little tough to take. Southwark is new London with a vengeance, although a few of its pleasures echo the old, albeit in a perilously self-conscious way. Across the Hungerford footbridge you go, now held aloft by a web of white wires that suggest a spiderweb, to a London whose first face is not narrow lanes and crooked streets but a great open plaza facing the water. Down its length are ranged the sort of people that were once its denizens and were called “buskers.” There are musicians, magicians, a man enacting a silent show of marionettes to the music of (yikes!) “A Foggy Day in London Town,” and a woman chalking “The Birth of Venus” onto the cement with her empty artists' pastels box by her heel for donations. Days later, on the other side of the river near Tower Bridge, we will see yet another chalk artist copying the same masterpiece. What is it about Botticelli and city pavement?
All this, however, takes place against a backdrop the former occupants of the place, even the most gifted fantabulists, could scarcely have imagined. There is a swathe of grass full of picnickers and young families on blankets, and then a wall of large featureless buildings of no particular modern design around the kind of barren open urban plazas that have turned out to be a mecca for skateboarders. Although Prince Charles seems to have no eye for even distinguished modern architecture, perhaps the inevitable effect of living in a series of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century palaces, he wasn't far off when he said the Royal National Theater building looked like “a disused power station.” What's worse, the Tate Modern Museum
a disused power station, the Bankside Power Station, decommissioned in 1986, reborn with works by Picasso, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol. Thank God for Southwark Cathedral, with its stained-glass windows showing scenes from Shakespeare, and the reproduction of the Globe Theatre, which was built in the old fashion, with pegs instead of nails. Wandering behind Waterloo Station with its new Janus face, half a staid turn-of-the-twentieth-century block, the other half all cables and glass, there is actual life: several blocks of identical houses, two up, two down, but betraying with their enameled doors, their window
treatments, and their window boxes the unmistakable odor of recent gentrification.
It would be easy to be snide about this, particularly in light of the beautiful state of preservation of the north side of the Thames, except for the lessons of history. One is that the original Southwark neighborhoods were the kinds of places residents were tempted to bulldoze, not preserve. The area had been a place for the unwelcome and the unlawful, at one time home to seven prisons, among them the original Clink that gave the name to all the others. It was also one of those areas, common to all great cities, where the undesirable but essential were located, the noxious factories, the tanneries, the soapmakers. Prostitutes worked the streets, radicals hid in the cellars. It was as though the whole area was a place of incarceration where the rest of London sent its troubles to be contained, and when its buildings were torn or closed down, for many who had lived or worked there it was as Dickens had written of the Marshalsea, once part of the area: “The world is none the worse without it.”
But it's a mistake for a visitor, particularly one from America, to be disdainful of any London neighborhood where the newly built has taken the place of what went before. We Americans have an inferiority complex about the British, if for no other reason than that the history
they carry is so much longer and richer than our own; after all, what passes for a very old building in Boston or Baltimore is merely middle-aged in London. (And we are convinced that British actors are better than our own, simply because their accents are so mellifluous.) But even those who have the usual American inch-deep knowledge of history understand that the small island nation from which we sprang has seen hardship that we cannot compete with. Fires that destroyed entire neighborhoods. Epidemics that wiped out hundreds of thousands of people. The slate of London had already been wiped almost clean many times before America was more than a vast expanse of forest traversed by Indian tribes.
But the city's trials are not simply ancient ones. Perhaps it is the most recent one of which we are most aware, and which we feel most deeply without having felt it personally at all, at least on our home ground. Sometimes you come upon it suddenly, in a way that shocks you into silence. On the Exhibition Row side of the Victoria and Albert Museum is a long wall that parallels the sidewalk. It is pocked with large holes, as though it had at one time been made of softer stuff and someone had thrown one hardball at it after another. Chiseled in among the pockmarks are these words: “The damage to these walls is the result of enemy bombing during the blitz of the second world war 1939â1945
and is left as a memorial to the enduring values of this great museum in a time of conflict.”
In some ways it's the literature of the Blitz that makes London feel foreign as much as any Regency romance about carriage rides on Rotten Row and dances at Almack's. Perhaps that's because the stories are simultaneously of our times and yet quite foreign, at least for those who spent those years in America, its buildings pocked only with war bond posters and gold stars. Peter Ackroyd makes it quite vivid at the very end of his London book, very vivid and very humbling. Six hundred bombers dropped their payloads on East London one night in September 1940, then the next night, and the next, hitting St. Paul's Cathedral and Piccadilly. They damaged Buckingham Palace, too, leading the Queen, later the Queen Mother, to famously say that she was glad she'd been bombed because now she could look the East End in the face.
By November, 1940, more than thirty thousand bombs had been dropped on London. Finally at the end of December came the raid that was the culmination of all that had gone before. The City, which was once the center of London and is now the center of finance and of publishing, was attacked. Whole blocks burned to the ground; many churches were severely damaged. Paternoster Row, that address familiar to anyone with old English books as the home of book publishing, was entirely destroyed, and, along with it, according to Ackroyd's account, five million books. The offices of dozens of publishers vanished in one night, just as they had during the Great Fire of London.
Hospital destroyed in the Blitz, 1940
Some of the best known novels of the time capture this, but in small intimate bits, perhaps in part because this tells the story of ordinary Londoners better than panoramic scenes of destruction would, perhaps because many of the novels of the Blitz were written by women. Nancy Mitford's
The Pursuit of Love
the strange juxtaposition of bombing raids and daily domestic life. Its narrator, Fanny, married and living in the country, goes up to London. “There had been a heavy raid the night before, and I passed through streets which glistened with broken glass,” she says. “Many fires still smoldered, and fire engines, ambulances and rescue men hurried to and fro.” But she also captures the almost gleeful pleasure some Londoners took in getting through the disasters, what Ackroyd describes as pride in their own suffering. A cab driver tells Fanny of helping the rescue workers with “a spongy mass of red,” adding, “it was still breathing, so I takes it to the hospital, but they says that's no good to us, take it to the mortuary. So I sews it in a sack and takes it to the mortuary.”
“Oh, that's nothing to what I have seen,” he adds.
“The people now, they don't know what real trouble is,” said a talkative cab driver who'd been a child during that time, sent out to the country after the earliest bombs fell.
Elizabeth Bowen's novel
The Heat of the Day
is set entirely during the period, and what it captures is a city deadened by waiting for the worst, going about its business in an atmosphere of banked fear and fire, the “lightless middle of the tunnel.” It is not so much the raids she describes as the life around and after them: “And it was
now, when you no longer saw, heard, smelled war, that a deadening acclimatization to it began to set in. The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weatherâin daylight they took their places as a norm of the scene.” I remember reading this as a teenager and, unaccustomed to any tragedy or deprivation, concluding that Bowen was dull and a little downbeat. Yet she must have made a more powerful impact on my unconscious mind than that conclusion would suggest, since, living in New York on September 11, 2001, I found myself reaching for my old hardcover copy of
The Heat of the Day
and revisiting the story of Stella and Robert's love affair more for that sense of watchful waiting in the face of sudden disaster than anything else.
And Doris Lessing, too, for her sense of what came after, bleak and hard and unforgiving. In
The Four-Gated City
she gave me a sense of a London that I had never met before, not harsh on a grand scale as Dickens's or Defoe's London was, or frivolous and class-bound in the fashion of Fielding and Thackeray, but mean and low and second-rate on the inevitable morning after a great cataclysm, a formerly dominant nation that now felt itself slipping into a stature more commensurate with its physical size. Early in the book Martha Quest walks through the Thameside neighborhood hit hard by the war:
About three acres lay flat, bared of building. Almostâit was a half job; the place had neither been cleared, nor left. It was as if some great thumb had come down and rubbed out buildings, carelessly: and then the owner of the thumb had blown away bits of debris and rubble, but carelessly. All the loose rubble had gone, or been piled up against walls, or the fence; but pits of water marked old basements, and sharp bits of walls jutted, and a heap of girders rusted.