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Brett Foster

London Letters, 2

On the track of an Italianate gentleman.

Dear Alan,

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's 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, 1
London Letters, 3
London Letters, 4
London Letters, 5
London Letters, 6

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