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Brett Foster

London Letters, 4


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."

If green Trafalgar invokes that latter, post-human scenario, then let's ruminate on ruins for a moment. I can hear deep within that grassy image the occasional cries of the more durable birds, can see the crumbling (by then) statues of the military heroes atop three of the square's four plinths—George IV, Sir Charles James Napier, Henry Havelock—and the traditionally empty fourth plinth in the northwest corner now destined to be empty forever. My mind begins to peer around the square and into the deserted National Portrait Gallery, where there is only natural light piercing the deep shadows, and moss hanging from the faces of the long forgotten illustrious of Britain. From mass transit to sic transit, just like that.

Now I am doing it again: in conceiving of London's visible history, or of a time when the few days we spent in London will be remote history, I still cannot help but think of such stuff in vertical terms. In some ways that's entirely sensible: St. Paul's was built centuries ago upon the site of a pagan temple. Similarly, we often do visualize the passing of time as a layering of eras and their more material remains, the older traces covered by earth that seems heaped up by the years themselves. I think of the old London wall you have already mentioned, as seen from the higher prospect of the Museum of London. Or of that moss imagined above—thickening as if pushing the thing it covers farther down ("down"?) into oblivion. Even without this material layering, so many places in London reflect that gyre-widening sense of historical succession and—how to say it?—metamorphic identity. One example from your last letter would be St. Alban's Tower, its incongruous location a clear if still mysterious sign of its utterly changed landscape and purpose. Where did the rest of it go? When did that building emerge right beside it? Truly odd. You also brought up St. Ethelberga nearby—a center for peace studies now, after that 1993 IRA bombing effectively ended its prior life as a church. And yet there it stands, different in function but still there, another visible sign.

These examples lead me to others, all of which point to one major source of my admiration for London—its resilience in the face of these changes, be they gradual and centuries' long or caused by the instant destruction of an attack, or something in between. Do you remember when we stopped briefly in front of the Zeppelin Building? We were on Farringdon Road by then, I think. A plaque on the edifice reads, "These premises were totally destroyed by a Zeppelin Raid during the World War on September 8th 1915 / Rebuilt 1917" What a quiet defiance in that last detail, in that rebuilding two years later. What's more, that assumption of the name of the destroyer borders on an un-English flippancy. "We flout you, German zeppelin! We appropriate you."

The more apropos word, though, remains "resiliency." How perfectly fitting is that sign "Keep Calm and Carry On," which the English government produced at the beginning of World War II, the century's next great occasion for London conflagration. (I can't help but hear a tonal echo here with the chipper phrase you mentioned, "Think Feet First"!) The phrase was meant to hearten everyone if Nazi forces succeeded in invading England. They did not, but wreaked much destruction by air. The Blitz makes me think of Eliot's poetry, and a less "workaday" moment in Four Quartets:

After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.

Eliot records here, and lyrically sublimates, his service as an air-raid warden and firewatcher during The Blitz. The experience is present too in these more memorable lines:

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one discharge from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Those raids, I would have thought, must have shaken London's citizens to their core, leaving them fearful and huddled. But so many stories and remembrances and so much photographic evidence suggest otherwise; Londoners did their best to go about their daily routine, even in the face of aerial apocalypse. I suspect we here can hardly fathom that fortitude because our little patch of turf known as Chicagoland has not experienced such an onslaught. (Thanks be to God.) Just the other day, on the Metra train into the Loop, I saw a curious advertisement, and one that felt indicting as I thought of London's visible history: "Heated Floors from Warmly Yours / Making Comfort Easy". That feels more like the American inheritance.

Alan, we soon encountered on that Sunday-afternoon walk another site of "flame of incandescent terror"—I mean the market at Smithfield. What a calm, lovely place it was for us: clear sunlight, the huge roof of the market itself steadfast and covering not very much activity at all. A strange calm in a place usually bustling with buying and selling. That version of quiet that a city allows. A couple of white lorries idled outside the market, and there were a few bikes chained to the black gate surrounding the square. The trees within were not yet in bloom, but still invitingly sylvan. Four and a half centuries ago, this was the place where many of the 300-plus Marian martyrs were burned at the stake. (They are commemorated on the southern side of the square.) A statue of a woman stood in the center of the gated, wooded area—was it Anne Askew, that memorable protestor of Catholic clerical abuses and superstitions, as she saw them? Fearlessly she argued scriptural hermeneutics and Eucharistic controversies with intimidating confessors and powerful bishops and councilmen. And what wit she shows in our record of her incarceration, The Examinations of Anne Askew! "Why throw pearls before swine when acorns will do?" she quipped to one of her interrogators. She was the worst kind of problem for these male church authorities: a learned, eloquent woman with strong convictions. However, the statue is not Askew, as we soon found out, but is an allegorical figure, Peace. Askew would be fittingly honored here, but given the fiery history of this spot, the benign bronze presence of Peace is certainly warranted, too.

I have already gone on at some length here, and should spare you more and send this to you at once. However, I must include one last example, of a visible trace of recent history. I mean that terrible day of 7/7, when in July 2005 four coordinated bombs exploded in central London. Three Tube explosions occurred at 8:50 a.m., all within a minute of one another, two on the Circle line and one on the Piccadilly line. Less than an hour later, a fourth bomb detonated on a No. 30 double-decker bus moving along Tavistock Square. The bus was ripped in half. All told, 56 people perished in the bombings, which also injured several hundred. The bus blast caused 13 fatalities. "We are at war and I am a soldier," said one of the bombers in a pre-recorded video. "Now you too will taste the reality of this situation."

Today, thankfully, that murderous reality is long gone from Tavistock Square, with its hip energy of adjacent University College and, on the other hand and more peacefully, its inviting green area and statue (ironically enough) of the peacemaker Ghandi still sitting there serenely. While his head is bowed, as if in mourning, he still remains resilient in the face of terrorist violence. Yet one can still find visible history, too, in the form of a small memorial posted to an iron gate on Upper Woburn Place. The names of the dead from the carnage of 7/7 appear there, followed by "London will not forget them and all those who suffered that day." We passed that somber, easily missed landmark while walking with our friend Mark, on the way to a gastropub for lunch. He had just arrived, and so we were walking at a brisk pace and talking excitedly. You don't know this, but I held back for a moment and quickly snapped a photo of the memorial, slowing down but still mid-step. Then I ran to catch up with you both. I must tell you, I have been troubled ever since by that small, almost unnoticeable action. It disturbs me, in fact, because it was practically unnoticeable. We were all famished, and I didn't want to hold us up, but what I did, how I did it, it strikes me now as horrible, or grossly disrespectful at best. And it struck me as such almost immediately: I sensed a group of people slightly behind me, and very likely they witnessed my "swoop in and snap" camera move. O ugly American!

It still makes me cringe, and since then I have thought of Auden's great final lines from "Muséedes Beaux Arts," where he describes the ship and that white slip of a boy's leg above the waves in Breughel's painting "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus":

… and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Following that surreptitious, too cavalier moment, I felt like a passenger on that ship of Brueghel's. I wished to make an observance of the square's terrible history (and that wish was a genuine one), but I was also happily sailing on with friends, onward to the day's next pleasure. For the record, I found myself intensely grateful for that mealtime, for the lunch and company both. The living must move on, but a city's scars are always there to warn us of unpredictable futures, of evils that sometimes invade our blessed days.

After my insensitive moment, we cut through Woburn Walk, a charming stretch with tiny lights in the trees, black facades with white window frames, and curiously specialized shops. This block is cozy and formal at once, and in this respect it may represent my impression of London generally. Still brooding on what had just happened, I noticed a placard in front of what appeared to be a literary-minded hair salon-cum-bookshop. It read, "Books and beauty / for the botched / and bungled." Amen, I say, and amen.


London Letters, 1
London Letters, 2
London Letters, 3
London Letters, 5
London Letters, 6

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