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Alan Jacobs

London Letters, 3

Think Feet First

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Dear Brett,

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: … 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!

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