Article

Brett Foster


London Letters, 6

Particularly fetching.

Dear Alan,

Yesterday I read your latest London letter (and last one, alas), and I enjoyed it a great deal. I also knew you would have some wonderfully detailed examples of London's historical layering, which we've been discussing for the past few letters.

I'm still thinking about your opening example—what a succession of sites in a single place. The Great Northern & City Railway, its power station, Gainsborough Studios with Hitchcock haunting the sets of B-Movies (!), a single season of Almeida Shakespeare in that same, now terminal space (ephemerality as the heart of theater), and now, in a great climax of history and gentrification … luxury flats. Time comes round. And likewise in your other example: how that "village London" exhibit in Trafalgar Square, turning much of the square into turf again, inadvertently actualized (is this the right word?) the name of the church overlooking it, St. Martin's-in-the-Fields. To think of that name being bestowed, and it meant literally! Time comes round. By the way, those Evensong hymns by Cowper and Newman managed to stir in me what our beloved Stuart author Thomas Browne calls an "elevation," even in my low-energy state at that point.

Well, that Measure for Measure production I caught with Mark may have been ephemeral too, but by bringing it up, you give me the pleasure of briefly remembering that night. First of all, what a great theater. I've heard you sing Islington's praises generally, and so I was excited when Mark and I took a nice stroll to the Almeida there. It was also fun before the show to hear him commend the theater itself for this and that, all said with a director's eye and the accompanying sense of possibilities the space afforded. Measure for Measure is a comedy, at least technically speaking, although it's better to use that handy phrase "problem comedy," which has been applied to this and a few other plays for awhile now. They were all written around the time that Shakespeare was writing Hamlet. He had recently lost his father, and was just entering those haunted, magnificent few years in which he would write his greatest tragedies—besides Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. Thus this play is no romantic comedy of lads and lasses, or anything tonally like the high comedies completed just previously—As You Like It, Twelfth Night. Each of those plays features a poignant undersong, like minor notes placed amid the shiny, happy comic strains. "Youth's a stuff will not endure," and so forth. Yet in terms of outlook, and weariness, they are worlds away from Measure for Measure, which arguably marks Shakespeare's Blue Period. We should also take note of a change in literary taste since the days of the comedies of the 1590s and even these final few high comedies. Satire was now all the rage, to the point that a Bishop's Ban was decreed against such hostile, scabrous works in 1599, as if the very sharpness of their language might cut through England's social fabric.

No, instead of cakes and ale, Measure for Measure offers nothing less than an examination of the human moral predicament, if "predicament" were strong enough a word. The play makes us confront this brutal fact: we poison ourselves despite ourselves. All of us. It is the human way. And those who seem most upright are very likely the most egregiously dissembling. Seen this way, the lieutenant Angelo appears as the play's central figure, and in due time we see him transform from a Puritan to a satyr, tormented by his lust for Isabella and willing to use the powers entrusted to him to be "satisfied." None of the characters is particularly likeable. Isabella is chaste, certainly, but possesses none of the enlivening spirit of, say, Rosalind from As You Like It. And the Duke—what is the Duke's deal? He seems mystifying, and not entirely trustworthy, from beginning to end. I really hadn't lived with this remarkable, troubling play for a couple of years, and this production at the Almeida Theatre gave me fresh eyes and ears for it.

Mark and I began our Islington adventure at the Angel Tube stop, and it seems fitting to end this tiny recollection back there, as my friend and I descended on the station's steep escalator, still discussing the show we'd just seen. Or better yet, I shall end with some grander send-up of that urban wonder that is the London Underground, and the design wonder that is its iconic rail map. So check out this "Transit Map of the World's Transit Systems" from Frank Jacobs' Strange Maps (you've featured an image from this curious book on your blog, I think) or, even more apropos, given that a Measure for Measure performance was our occasion to travel to the Almeida in the first place, a Shakespeare-themed Tube map: two great UK exports that look great together.

Having riffed on Shakespeare a little, allow me next to mention one last Renaissance writer, Thomas Nashe, a favorite of mine. He'll help me to begin to think for a moment about what we experience in city life, and what we don't have to. In his romp of an early-modern novel, The Unfortunate Traveller, Nashe follows his picaresque adventurer Jack Wilton to the Low Countries, the Imperial Court, and Renaissance Rome. We see Tudor London only briefly, with sketches of intrigues at Henry VIII's palace and an outbreak of the sweating sickness, which Nashe describes with all of the visual horrors of filmmakers such as David Lynch or David Cronenberg. (The Internet Movie Database website describes the latter David as "King of Venereal Horror"—that's quite a title.)

I also think one last time about my research subject, that Tudor traveler William Thomas. He succeeded somehow in returning to favor after his Italian exile, improbably going from disgraced, embezzling courtier to a one-man humanist think tank for the young king, Edward VI. (For the record, I was finally able to consult a number of his works in the British Library manuscript reading room, despite the ongoing strike. A happy ending!) These texts, some of them autographs, are lasting signs of Thomas' busy period in the center of the Edwardian royal court.

Unfortunately Thomas was also a one-man fortune's wheel. After achieving, in his words, this great "prosperitie" with King Edward, he swiftly found himself on the outs again when Mary I assumed the throne in 1553. He resisted the queen's match with Philip of Spain, was caught up in Wyatt's Rebellion, and was eventually imprisoned and executed. A letter exists, written from outside London once Wyatt's rebels had entered the city. Thomas has fled to somewhere in Devonshire I think, and nervously asks about his London property, which he soon learns is sacked. (Although you're right in your last letter—if anyone could find traces of that long-lost Tudor home, it would be Peter Ackroyd!) These aspects of London's long history—the uprisings and plague and, in our day, the bus bombings—are all happily foreign, of course. Sometimes we must be grateful for narrow urban experiences, for our little dull pinpoint on the timeline.

Well, maybe it's time that we too shut down our historical consciousness, as you mentioned average Londoners have to do. Like them, we must navigate through our days, today and ahead of us, and not brood too much on ruins or layers or loss. I'd like to spend the rest of this letter, then, making one more attempt at verbalizing what I previously called that vast tonal range so prevalent in city life. My first impression is not promising: our experience of London looks inevitably narrow in this way, too—our times there have been brief, and our sense of the place is limited mainly to the over-exposed central areas, especially Bloomsbury (love it as I do). Take the upshot of your own comment: neither one of us is an "average Londoner," despite our deep enthusiasm for the city and our fair-to-decent ability to get around it.

There's an elite London we will surely never see, and geographically I think of the reposing, grey-facaded respectability of Mayfair. (When Henry James spoke of London as "in certain ways the spoiled child of the world," he had just previously been meditating on "the mind of Mayfair.") One representative of that world, Conservative leader David Cameron, has just fashioned a coalition making him England's new Prime Minister. Certainly Cameron has helped to craft a different image of his party in recent years (his jeans, tieless shirt, and habit of bicycling to work come to mind), but class differences nevertheless remain far more formidable in the UK than they are in the States. And Alan, when the Tory MP Sir Nicholas Winterton describes those "totally different kind of people" whom he would rather not have to travel with or near, well, he's talking about us—if, that is, we somehow rose above the level of tourists anyhow. (And you and I, we're the worst sort—overly amiable, thus slightly suspicious or off-putting, southern and midwestern American tourists!)

We also never see the countless out-of-the-way neighborhoods, with urban realities far different from Mayfair's. A rougher, quotidian existence prevails. Me, I think of the East End at this point, but I realize I do so in the most general, know-nothing terms, based on warnings I've received, articles read, etc. The centuries-old reputation of East London remains influential, as an area where poverty, crime, and overcrowding wreak urban havoc amid the docks and rookeries. Although it is still an impoverished area, I learned a lot from Sophie Howarth's recent article on her favorite spots in her East End neighborhood, such as Broadway Market or the The Royal Oak café on Columbia Road. Her survey appeared in the premier issue of a new travel magazine, Afar (see its blog here). Howarth (founder of an interesting "social enterprise" on Marchmont Street, quite near where we were staying) quickly gives us outsiders a different impression, or rather one with more depth and complexity—two things required for any genuine encounter with a neighborhood.

And yet, despite these constrained circumstances—limitations of experience or imagination, our lazy reliance on generalities—it's easy to sense and savor that tonal range that interests me, the bizarre assembly of high and low things overheard, the funny and absurd side by side with the horrific, and all finessed further by the kind of serendipity that intense urban density makes possible. Furthermore, it all takes place simultaneously, so that the historical layering we're speaking of collapses and flattens out. To create, what? Not chronological layers in this case but, hmmm, would accordion folds be a useful metaphor here?

At some level, this tonal variety springs forth from human personality itself, with all of its delights and repulsions, its capacities for actions good and bad, its attention to the trifling or world-changing. This shouldn't be surprising—what is a city, after all, but a concrete hive bustling with human personalities? I might as well acknowledge the ugly and difficult side first. Alan, do you remember that lovely Sunday evening with our friends in St. John's Wood, visiting their neighborhood free house? Well, I have just heard that this enviable neighborhood, home to the American embassy community and popular because of the Beatles' Abbey Road Studios nearby, has been hit by a string of muggings. ("And tired like me with follies and with crimes," writes Samuel Johnson in "London," a poem based on a satire by Juvenal, an earlier mocker of urban ills.) More darkly, on a perfect and perfectly sunny early spring morning when we enjoyed coffee and the papers, I read in The Observer about a ghastly crime. A Yorkshire man had stabbed his ex-partner's mother and then written a message to his ex on the wall, in blood: "________ you, Claire." The assailant eventually jumped to his death from a car park. These are horror stories, and cities endure them, and their citizens live through them, or do not.

It's better to have the quiet life, a demanding one even or one of drudgery, trudging step by step through a quiet career. One day we awaited friends in front of the Royal Exchange, still an impressive sight. It was all the mercantile rage under Elizabeth I. Our best equivalent may be the Dallas Cowboys' grandiose new stadium. As I glanced across the square at the tall doors of the Bank of England, a guy walked up from his motorbike and knocked on that imposing entrance. A young businessman soon appeared, and accepted take-out in exchange for a few pound notes. The doors dwarfed this common transaction, making it somehow comical. Within, employees were working hard on a Sunday afternoon, eating from Styrofoam for the sake of finance. And better this life, moving along, than sheer indifference, where those without means or facing adversities are met with pitilessness. I'm thinking of Peter Ackroyd again, this time his novel The Lambs of London. There we meet that eclectic essayist and opium-eater Thomas de Quincy. He first comes to the city and knows not a soul. Finally a distant kinsman allows him to stay in a "deserted, broken-down house in Berners Street." On his first night there, he discovers a housemate, Anna. "I don't mind the rats," she says. "But I mind the ghosts." Hers, we learn, "was a familiar London history of want, neglect, and hardship that made her seem older than she truly was." They soon become friends, and together walk the city's streets. Anna nurses Thomas through a fever. He has to travel to Winchester, and returning five days later, finds Anna gone. "She disappeared from the face of London as suddenly and as completely as if she had sunk beneath an ocean."

These examples refuse to step aside, yet what a meager visualization this is, gaunt in its attention and urban rendering. To focus only on what Henry James calls the "miles and miles of the dreariest, stodgiest commonness" is to become equally stodgy, to be parsimonious in tone. "The heart tends to grow hard in her company," he remarks elsewhere about London. There may be some truth to this, as with that anonymity cultivated so easily in cities, or habits of passing easily by. "London is so clumsy and so brutal," he also says. I suspect James and I would disagree as to the precise merits of clumsiness. (Listen to me— arguing now with the author of The American!) For me, this is one of the treasured parts of city life. All of the clumsy, silly things. I cannot help but smile when remembering that pub placard we saw near the British Museum - "EAT! Come in and celebrate 150 years of fish and chips." Or how about GoodEnough College? A recruitment advert for MI-5, seen on the Piccadilly line, also risks absurdity:

"Notice the last person to get off the train? Could you describe that person? You may be able to help protect the UK if you have observant skills. / / Don't tell others about your application."

You and I encountered plenty of heartiness in London, too. The London-raised Irish playwright Martin McDonagh claims that he recently moved to New York after growing tired of Londoners' rudeness, but I typically haven't experienced this. They can, though, be a surprisingly colorful lot. Walk around London (or any city) with the barest willingness to play the eavesdropper. It will always yield color of a linguistic sort. As I strolled by a cluster of students near University College, I heard one exclaim, "Well that's such a Hugh Grant and Colin Farrell moment, isn't it?" That last clause does better as isn't it?, to convey the properly arch intonation. The fellow had just placed his friend within an intergenerational lineage of British rakes. Another version of extreme intonation is the polite lilt. "Are you done then?" asked the British Library employee in the rare-book room. "Lovely then." To use an exclamation point there would exaggerate the delivery. Helium moment at first, with faint smile, but then downshifting quickly. The British use of "isn't it?", though, is more like an expressive work of art: two short, bland words in a rhetorical question, yet capable of stiletto uses. The golfer Padraig Harrington recently used it thus, to comment on Tiger Woods' behavior. The phrase "particularly fetching" is also tonally resourceful—but to different effect.

Here are a few British-English words or portmanteaus tickling my brain lately: hot-desking (wi-fi work at cafÉ tables), barmy ("we are barmy in the depths of recession"), candy floss (our cotton candy). I noticed ads for "Vitabiotic," which sounds like the healthiest something or other ever sold. If you're not a black-coffee person, you may prefer a Flat White, as in "velvety smooth Flat White." British English is more inventive in its euphemisms. Consider, for example, the phrase "the Anglo-Saxon tetragram." Its sentences often mix words that we would find tonally exclusive, so that a tabloid headline might read, "Essex girl appalled by distended tummy. Icky." Similarly, do you recall those two gobs on our train to Heathrow? Restless, glancing about, they seemed like a pair straight out of a Pinter play. Yet I remember one asking the other, "What's wrong? Just a sore belly?" I half expected one guy to scratch and coo at the other's stomach. Then there are verbs: to nip, to nick. A while ago, a Wimbledon billboard announced the benefits of a remote shut-down command if one's cell phone were stolen. It's one of my all-time favorite examples of English: "If it's nicked, it's knackered."

We need these nimble, eclectic displays of language because our lives are just so. Shortly after we reached our hotel room, I flipped through a front-desk copy of Time Out London and was struck by the human activities on a given Saturday. There was the Starting Over Show at the Hilton Metropol on Edgeware Road: "A show for people going through life-changing challenges such as divorce, separation, illness or bereavement. Exhibitors include hypnotherapists, lawyers, financial advisors and life counselors." A concurrent event called Desire sold jewelry and silverware. There was a screen-printing class, a Violin Makers' Day. And there was the Flirting and Walking Tour of London, beginning at the National Portrait Gallery and "uncovering flirting hotspots including art galleries, bookstores and supermarkets." It continued, "The evening includes practical exercises based on theories around body language and stepping outside your comfort zone."

I marvel at this range, these tones, this myriad living— or the haphazardly mingling energies of Camden Town, or Wordsworth's lines, brought up in your last letter: "This City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning; silent, bare, … / And all that mighty heart is lying still!"

That sense of coming to, of potential that may burst into life and strife and noble motion at any minute, also reminds me of Keats' phrase, "'Tis might half slumb'ring on its own right arm" (and in turn, with a nod above, Isabella's words to Angelo, by which she urges mercy for her condemned brother Claudio: "O, it is excellent / To have a giant's strength, but it is tyrannous / To use it like a giant").

It seems fitting to wrap up my last, less than little flight of urban fancy with a regretful list, a compilation of a few books I wish I hadn't passed on—born of a mix of necessary frugality, a lack of appreciation for our overseas setting, foolhardy overpacking related to research, and, redeeming it all, a remembrance of spousal wishes. They include an inexpensive paperback of Tyndale's New Testament (would have been perfect for a friend); Peter Hall's Shakespeare's Advice to the Players; Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, a play that is all the rage in London at present, thanks to Mark Rylance's universally praised turn as Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a Blakean ex-daredevil biker, strangely moving drug dealer, and squatter who lives in a metal trailer in Wiltshire (by the way, Alan, thanks for lending me your copy after we returned home; it took the edge off of my wistfulness); various editions of Simon Armitage's poems; Shakespeare's Individualism, a brand new academic title by Peter Holbrook, and Anne Barton's Essays, Mainly Shakespearean; a little volume on Ariosto, spotted in a shop on Charing Cross and, again, perfect for a friend; a new (to me) collected edition of Michael Donaghy's fine poetry, an edition that I still imagine on the shelf at Foyles, as if impassively waiting for me to choose more wisely next time; Elizabeth Jennings' New Collected Poems; Joseph O'Neill's 2008 novel Netherland at one of the Oxfam bookshops; and a beautiful modern edition of the Wyclifite Bible in the British Library bookstore.

So when can we return and obtain some of these foolishly underappreciated (though hardly overlooked) volumes?

Cheers, and cheerio—only for now, I hope, with more adventures ahead …

Brett

London Letters, 1
London Letters, 2
London Letters, 3
London Letters, 4
London Letters, 5


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