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Alan Jacobs

London Letters, 5

The very houses seem asleep.

Dear Brett,

As I read your fabulous letter I kept thinking how layered London is. True of any old city, of course, but London seems to show its layers more than most—thanks especially to Blitzes and Zeppelin raids and the like. Consider this: You and our friend Mark Lewis had the pleasure of seeing Measure for Measure at the fine old Almeida Theatre in Islington, no? Well, ten years ago the people of the Almeida interceded in an interesting way for a neighboring north London institution.

But first, let's go back a century or more, when there was an electrical rail service in London called the Great Northern & City Railway—it survives in transmuted form as the Northern City Line—that needed to generate its own power. So the company built an enormous power station on Poole Street in Islington. By the 1920s the advancing London electrical infrastructure made such a station unnecessary, and the building was bought by, of all things, a film company, Gainsborough Pictures. Gainsborough gutted the building and rebuilt it as studios, with the enormous chimney of the old power station still looming above the landscape, and for the next quarter-century many, many movies were made there. Alfred Hitchcock got his start in films writing scenarios for Gainsborough, then worked as an assistant director. Gainsborough mostly made B-movies with little-known actors—lots of costume dramas—and when this kind of film stopped making money, after World War II, the studios were shut down.

For decades the building sat unused, until in the last years of the 20th century a development company bought it and announced plans to tear it down and build luxury flats in its place. It was at this point that the Almeida Theatre's management decided that the cinematic history of the building needed at least to be commemorated—and in a very interesting way. They decided to use the empty space for just one season, not to make a film, but to put on … Shakespeare. Two plays by Shakespeare, in fact: Richard II and Coriolanus. And to play the lead in both of those plays, running for a time on alternate nights, they found a pretty good actor, one who had worked for the Almeida many times over the years: Ralph Fiennes.

This was the spring and summer of 2000, and I was blessed to see Fiennes as Coriolanus—he was extraordinary. (And now, I am very pleased to learn, Fiennes is directing a film of the tragedy and will be playing the lead role once more.) A number of my students got to see him in both parts; I envied them that. And the decrepit industrial space was extraordinary as well, a strangely compelling environment in which to see a play about the Roman republic! But two years later the old power station came down, and soon thereafter the luxury flats went up.

And I can't help noting that if you walk about a mile south of those flats you'll find yourself in Shoreditch, where, as you know better than I, the first London theater was built, in 1576, by an actor and impresario named James Burbage—and then, just 22 years later, torn down so that its timbers could be carried across the Thames and used to put up the Globe, itself now reconstructed and revivified. Among the people heavily involved in that latter endeavor were one William Shakespeare and his colleague, James Burbage's son Richard. The younger Burbage was the first man to play several of the most famous roles in the history of drama, and would surely have played both Richard II and Coriolanus.

So, as I say, layers: imagine living in those flats, where before there had been the studio, before that the power station for London's burgeoning rail system, before that—who knows? Open countryside, probably, like the countryside that once occupied what we now call Trafalgar Square. We are prone to forget the meaning of the name of that church that stands right above the Square, the one where we and your friends Chris and Rachel enjoyed a lovely Evensong: St. Martin-in-the-Fields. When the first parish church was built in that space eight hundred years ago the whole area was nothing but field and pasture. Before that there had been a little chapel for the use of Westminster Abbey's monks as they tended their crops and herds. So the greening of the square you referred to in your last letter was a way of adding a layer paradoxically: many centuries of history were, however briefly, peeled away, so that St. Martin's was once more, if you looked at just the right angle and squinted a bit, yes, in the fields.

Everywhere you turn in London you find this kind of thing, as your last letter demonstrated so clearly with its delightful range of reference. I wonder how attentive or inattentive the average Londoner is to all this; I suppose after a while you'd need to shut down your historical consciousness just to be able to navigate through your day. And perhaps even the recently dead, such as those who perished on 7/7, must recede quickly and silently, must be, if not forgotten, at least neglected.

So history is what we forget—but in a place like London it's always there to be called back, if we choose, and once we start the remembering it's hard to get to the bottom of it. There's always one more layer. It's exciting but also disorienting—I mean, just look at how much we've had to do in unpacking the few days we spent there—and indeed London in general is disorienting. The speed and energy and noise and crush of a great city going on and on, making you feel like you're on a treadmill you want to jump from for just a moment so you can really see that building, that statue, that sign—so you can absorb the history. For that very reason it was pleasant to be walking past Smithfield Market, as we did, on a weekend afternoon when there was little action or traffic. I could think a bit. The energy of London is wonderful, but at times I sympathize with Wordsworth, who could best appreciate London in those rare moments when it was as still and quiet as a remote Lake District vale, and he was too. So I think I'll end with one more poem, one that runs against the grain of our frantic recent experiences but, perhaps for that reason, is worth a moment's quiet notice:

Earth hath not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendor, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! The very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

With thanks for this dialogue, I remain

Your botched and bungled friend,


London Letters, 1
London Letters, 2
London Letters, 3
London Letters, 4
London Letters, 6

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