Brett Foster

London Letters, 4


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Dear Alan,

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."

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