Tag Archives: London

Eviction again

I live in a small, rather damp and quite cold flat that for all of its smallness still manages to contain four bedrooms and a winding corridor, stairs that go up and then stairs that go down…probably because it does not contain the space to hold a table for a sit-down meal. It could be very nice and quirky, but mostly it is cold and full of someone else’s stuff. In bags mostly.

But my room is mine, and it is home.

It sits over a shop that once held two large white men who sold a variety of used and crappy things without enthusiasm as they ran poker games out of the back. Since then it has been a used-goods shop that actually made a little more effort (but there was a hell of a lot more angry arguing under my window — which may have signaled a not entirely legitimate business practice or possibly just the presence of customers , something I had never seen/heard before), and a bicycle repair shop with some serious drama amongst owners over a year or so — I miss some of them, though I do not miss their reggae booming through the floor — and some kind of garment making operation in the back. I’ve spent two non-consecutive winters with it empty, just a big ball of cold damp empty space making my room even colder.

All of it has just been sold, the new owner is a bit hostile, making rumblings about structural unsoundness, wants to move the entrance in an inexplicable move that makes no sense given this ‘lovely’ 1840s architecture, but really we think just wants to tear it down. Build some ‘luxury’ flats as cheaply as possible. Words words words and nothing in writing yet. But the end is probably coming.

This is the third time I go through this, different from losing the house my parents built, different from losing my mum’s house that we had all invested in, but still. Forced to pick up and go. Move along. Shove off. Pull yourself out, not up, by your roots or what was left of them.  Take them with you in case you sprout back, like a weed. You are not wanted in this new place.

We’ll stay as long as we can, but imagine it will get both unpleasant and ugly. There is a padlock war on at the moment over the back gate.

Sitting here staring at my stuff —  I have way too much stuff, I recognise this. Books mostly, I cannot stop from filling anywhere I live with books. And they are a bitch to move, thank god I don’t work for a publisher anymore carting them around to sell. Moving books makes you hate them. So I’m putting everything I might be able to give away to someone deserving (because they were awesome and should not rot here in my room) / get to the thrift shop after reading into a pile to read quick. Quickish. Thought I might post a list to inspire myself to stick with it, also to cheer myself up. I have read one already since my list decision was made.

  1. Death and the Penguin – Andrey Kharkov
  2. The Black Book – Orhan Pamuk
  3. The Good Soldier Schweik – Yaroslav Hasek
  4. Lanark – Alasdair Gray
  5. Floating Worlds – Cecilia Holland
  6. The Panda’s Thumb – Gould
  7. We – Zamyatin
  8. The Very Slow Time Machine – Ian Watson
  9. The Octopus – Frank Norris
  10. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer
  11. What Was Lust – Catharine O’Flynn
  12. The Bridge of the Golden Horn – Emine Ozdamer
  13. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay — Chabon
  14. Semiotext SF
  15. Futureshocks
  16. Conversations with Chester Himes
  17. The History of the Day Before – Eco
  18. Southern Nights – Barry Gifford
  19. The Telling – Le Guin
  20. The 5th Inning – E. Ethelbert Miller
  21. Rio Quibu – Ronaldo Menendez
  22. Fast Forward 2
  23. Twenty Epics
  24. The Best Noir of the Century
  25. The Buenos Aires Affair – Manuel Puig
  26. The Taking of the Waters – John Shannon
  27. Mr Bloomfield’s Orchard – Nicholas Money
  28. Necropolis – catharine Arnold
  29. Re:Imagining Change – Reinsborough & Canning
  30. What Would it Mean to Win? – Turbulence
  31. Vic: Lambeth to Lambourn – Victor Cox
  32. Gravity’s Rainbow – Pynchon
  33. Americanah – Chimamanda
  34. Against Architecture – Franco La Cecla
  35. Revolting Subjects – Imogen Tyler
  36. The Housing Monster – Prole
  37. Session: Irish Stories – Mick Fitzgerald
  38. Vauxhall – Gbadamosi
  39. Perfect Vacuum – Lem
  40. Fiasco – Lem
  41. Return From the Stars – Lem
  42. Hospital of the Transfiguration – Lem
  43. Eden – Lem
  44. One To Count Cadence – Crumley

To go back to the library:
45. East London – Besant
46. Growing Smarter – ed. robert bullard
47. Palestinian Walks – Shehadeh
48. East End and Docklands – Fisher

No problem reading all of those, right? More will enter this stack I am sure — those two books my dad gave me before he died, can I get rid of those? What about the ones that I needed for my thesis and were really awesome but I probably won’t use again?

The only good thing is that I am finally going to get to use that milestone widget I believe! Now, do I read a big one to free more space or several small ones to cross shit off?

The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.

Save

Poplar: From East India Dock Road to St Paul’s Way

Another walk through Poplar, away from the more historic High Street, beginning with East India Docks Rd and heading to St Paul’s Way. I love this village, suburb, piece of London though it is new to me. Turning right on Kerbey Street I passed the Salvation Army Hall (and the Salvation Army has been a fixture of East End life since it’s beginnings 150 years ago) and this pretty awesome ‘selfie post’:

Poplar

The view to the south:

Poplar

It saddens me, that everywhere Canary Wharf looms over you.

Makes me happy that there is still so much council housing, though how much is ‘genuinely affordable’ social housing I do not know. I still feel we know more now, can design better housing and community now, but I will defend this to the last until that commitment is made, is built.

Poplar

Still, it is a relief to come to the open piece of green that is Bartlett Park after so much concrete — even though it is railed in — to find boys playing cricket and football fields and one last building left from earlier days covered over with vines (and seriously un-photogenic due to the street works taking place, so in possible violation of the dérive principle, it does not feature here).

Poplar

But I wondered at the multi-storey towers, they appeared to be that cheap brand of luxury housing mushrooming along the rivers and canals so I couldn’t understand what they were doing there in all of their massive garishness and glass:

Poplar

I shortly arrived here, and all of my wonderings were answered — I hadn’t realised I was approaching the Limehouse Cut. I get a little fucking angry, though, that these buildings should cut through and haughtily rise above our neighbourhoods, transforming the feel of the canals I love without providing the housing we so desperately need.

Poplar

It is the shoddy arrogance of today’s wealth staring down in comfort, a sneer at inequality written across the horizon.

Despite this, the canal still has some of its old magic, in the form of old warehouses in brick and personal expression spray-painted across its walls:

Poplar

Remnants of the past still linger on, making you positively nostalgic and I don’t want to be nostalgic. I want to look forward to our future and a better world, rather than back.

Poplar

In spite of everything, a vibrant diversity still clings on to life here.

Poplar

I got nostalgic again leaving this old brick for this shiny new school:

Poplar

Researching its shininess further I found this from their website:

A major new programme to help children learn enterprise and employability skills will be launched at St Paul’s Way Trust School in January 2015.

A very generous grant from J P Morgan to the school, in association with St Paul’s Way Community Interest Company, will support students to develop their own business ideas, and turn their plans into real community enterprises. The grant will also support the school to develop a more comprehensive work experience programme, meaning that every student will have opportunities to learn about work which is tailored to their hopes for the future.

It chills me that they are offering a life geared towards work to our children, rather than inspiration and creativity to encourage a curiosity about our world and the knowledge of how to explore it in ways unlimited by the need to profit.

reading-rainbow-kickstarter-levar-burton

Obviously Canary Wharf looms over people’s lives in more ways than one.

Poplar

Their estates that are being decanted.

Poplar

Their churches and community centres:

Poplar

I had begun this walk with the intention of finding Paper & Cup‘s St Paul’s Way Centre cafe, but realised I didn’t have time to stop, so I completed the loop back down to the Westferry DLR. It was nice to see Mile End Park, but it lies on the other side of the massive Burdett Road full of traffic and fumes, scary to cross.

I walked back down it, but didn’t have much heart for pictures. Only this little park full of crocuses and snowdrops and a lost section of row housing that reminds you that you are human:

Poplar

Soon there will be daffodils.

Save

Arriving in Poplar

I’m slowly getting to know Poplar. I love the fact that Tower Hamlets captures in its name the way it is a burrough of small villages, but even so it surprises you just how different each one feels. This despite the fact that they now run together, with no separation in the urban fabric, unless you perhaps count the enormous roads that break up the east end cruelly with snarling lines of traffic. Planners always put roads, interchanges, major arteries right down through the poorer neighbourhoods and here you can only imagine what used to be when you come across the small pockets of emptiness dead-ending into these thoroughfares.

But back to Poplar…exiting the DLR you can see The City in the distance, the original centre of banking might:

Poplar

But its new cluster at Canary Wharf looms high above you to your left

Poplar

Part of me responds to this landscape — my love of trains and altitude and contrasts between new buildings and old are all at work here. But it is only this little section that I find appealing, the rest is an uninspired towering of metal and glass with no distinction. I was once, after a long day spent on coaches and trains that were all severely delayed, trapped in Canary Wharf in the rain. If you don’t know it, it is almost impossible to escape on foot, and one of the most alienating landscapes I could imagine. But I will look at that later.

Poplar

I failed to take a picture of the community centre and football fields — only later in the day did I learn how hard the community had to fight to get them and keep them. There is a long passage bringing you to Poplar High Street, full of the young students from Tower Hamlets College. I really like this high street:

Poplar

But the church — St Matthias Old Church, was an even more wonderful surprise. You can see its spire from all of Poplar, walking down the high street you come to a turn off that carries you to the church itself, removes you from the city

Poplar

It is beautiful here, you enter this green space and automatically take a great breath, relax your shoulders, smile:
Poplar

Poplar

Looking up the church itself I found its lovely website with a long and detailed history, just an excerpt:

St Matthias, Poplar is one of London’s most surprising buildings. Externally it is Victorian, but inside its stone-clad walls is a rare example of a mid-seventeeth century classical church which has survived in surprisingly unaltered form. It is the oldest building in Docklands.

Originally known as Poplar Chapel, it had two purposes: it served as a chapel for the inhabitants of the hamlets of Poplar and Blackwall, who had previously been obliged to travel several miles to the overcrowded parish church of St Dunstan’s, Stepney, and desired a more local place of worship; secondly, it served as the chapel for the East India Company, which had an almshouse and a dockyard hard by. It is their coat of arms that is carved upon the ceiling boss inside the church, and their history that is central to the story of the Poplar Chapel.

Poplar

I love old churchyards, and it is nice that this one retains its gravestones where they lie. I found the one above curious, because it is all women, a grandmother and two little girls and no clear relationship between the first two and the last. There is a story here, of women’s lives in the mid 1800s, but no other hints.

More of the church, I may hate the East India Company, but I love what they have built:

Poplar

Poplar

Turning away from the church, however, you understand the psychological impact of Canary Wharf as it stares down at Poplar, inescapable in its looming over a landscape both more human and more natural.

Poplar

I was more than happy to find that this was actually my destination, the church now known as St Matthias Community Centre, to talk to Sister Christine Frost who is even more of a treasure to Poplar than this place. She is part of South Poplar and Limehouse Action for Secure Housing (SPLASH) and knows everything there is to know, I think, about Poplar and the challenges it is facing.

Leaving St Matthias after a lovely discussion of struggle and future possibilities I went for a bit of a wander — after reading Ann Stafford’s book on the dock strike I wanted to find Shirbutt Street where Will Crooks was born. It was just around the corner, the new estate bearing his name sitting right on Poplar High Street:

Poplar

Community garden plots fill much of the space around the estate’s edges, I cannot tell you how happy they made me…

Poplar

On Will Crooks, a pivotal figure in the docker’s strike of 1889, and his talks at the gates of the East India Company:

He did not only talk about their grievances–a subject of which they never tired–he started them thinking about all the good things that they wanted, public libraries, technical institutes, even a tunnel under the Thames…Crooks’ College, Poplar people called these meetings, and Crooks’ College went on Sunday after Sunday, year after year, almost without interruption, even when Will was elected to the London County Council, served on the Board of Guardians, became Mayor of Poplar, and in 1903 was returned to Parliament as Labour M.P. for Woolwich (47-48).

Poplar

Poplar

Hale street remembers another key radical figure from Poplar, George Lansbury:

Poplar

More about him in later posts, but I love this mural.

Poplar

And a little further down you get a full sense of St Matthias and the open space here — and did I mention the public bowling green on the corner? I don’t think I did, but it made me happy too.

Poplar

It’s a good comparison to this, the oldest drawing of the church

histroy_img1

I continued down to East India Dock Road

Poplar

To find the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest, another place I had heard a great deal about:

Poplar

It’s history:

QVSR started life as the Seamen’s Mission of the Methodist Church in 1843. Known originally as the Wesleyan Seamen’s Mission, the aim was to minister to the spiritual needs and promote the social and morale welfare of seafarers and their families in the vicinity of the Port of London.

Over time a need arose for a meeting place of some kind in the new sailor town that had sprung up at Poplar. Right opposite the ‘seamen’s entrance’ of the local Board of Trade Office on the East India Dock Road in Jeremiah Street stood a small public house called The Magnet. In 1887, the license of The Magnet was withdrawn, providing the Mission an opportunity to rent the public house and it was transformed into a Seamen’s Rest.

What it once looked like:

And what it looks like now, expanded far beyond it’s humble beginnings though I am so glad they’ve kept the original lovely facade:

Poplar

Continuing West you come to the Manor Arms:

Poplar

I am almost certain that this was mentioned as one of the pubs where striking dockers were able to get breakfast, the Irish woman who owned it supporting the strike.

I turned left here, with only time for a quick circle. Again you feel Canary Wharf looking over you, on the right is a Catholic school dwarfed by corporate wealth (they have managed to make even the Catholic church look small).

Poplar

Save

The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

Save

300 years of Being Screwed by Stock Jobbers: Daniel Defoe on the Evils of Stock and Speculation

Portrait of Daniel Defoe, National Maritime Museum, London
Portrait of Daniel Defoe, National Maritime Museum, London

Daniel Defoe is more than a bit curmudgeonly in this tract, but not curmudgeonly enough given I agree with all of it where I understand what the hell he’s talking about — and it’s almost three hundred years since he first wrote this scree. I am sad to find so much that resonates with his opinion of the stock market and those making a living by speculating on its ups and downs, along with the suckers they take in:

’tis a Trade founded in Fraud, born of Deceit, and nourished by Trick, Cheat, Wheedle, Forgeries, Falshoods, and all sorts of Delusions; Coining false News, this way good, that way bad; whispering imaginary Terrors, Frights, Hopes, Expectations, and then preying upon the Weakness of those, whose Imaginations they have wrought upon, whom they have either elevated or depress’d. If they meet with a Cull, a young Dealer that has Money to lay out, they catch him at the Door, whisper to him, Sir, here is a great piece of News, it is not yet publick, it is worth a Thousand Guineas but to mention it: I am heartily glad I met you, but it must be as secret as the black side of your Soul, for they know nothing of it yet in the Coffee-House, if they should, Stock would rise 10 per Cent. in a moment, and I warrant you South-Sea will be 130 in a Week’s Time, after it is known… Are you sure of it, says the Fish, who jumps eagerly into the Net?

I’ve been reading so much, but still can’t be bothered to find out the identities of Mr. T—s chief Agent or Lord M—r‘s Broker, but ‘that Original of Stock-Jobbing, Sir J— C—-‘ is of course, Sir Josiah Child of the East India Company, in connection with tales of how he and the Company passed along false notices of news and manipulated the price of stock to their profit.

I quite enjoyed this summary of the differences between thievery through the stock market and armed robbery:

their Employment was a Branch of Highway Robbing, and only differ’d in two things, First in Degree, (viz.) that it was ten Thousand times worse, more remorseless, more void of Humanity, done without Necessity, and committed upon Fathers, Brothers, Widows, Orphans, and intimate Friends; in all which Cases, Highwaymen, generally touch’d with Remorse, and affected with Principles of Humanity and Generosity, stopt short and choose to prey upon Strangers only. Secondly in Danger, (viz.) that these rob securely ; the other, with the utmost Risque that the Highwaymen run, at the Hazard of their Lives, being sure to be hang’d first or last, whereas these rob only at the Hazard of their Reputation which is generally lost before they begin, and of their Souls, which Trifle is not worth the mentioning.

I think also his warning about what happens when men trusted with public moneys are also involved in stock speculation is as valid today as it has ever been, and truly ‘more fatal to the Publick than an Invasion of Spaniards’ (a phrase that is funnier today than it was at the time I am sure):

But when we find this Trade become a Political Vice, a publick Crime, and that as it is now carried on, it appears dangerous to the Publick, that whenever any Wickedness is it Hand, any Mischief by the worst of the Nations Enemies upon the Wheel, the Stock Jobbers are naturally made assistant to it, that they become Abettors of Treason, assistant to Rebellion and Invasion, then it is certainly time to speak, for the very Employment be∣comes a Crime, and we are oblig’d to expose a Sort of Men, who are more dangerous than a whole Nation of Enemies Abroad, an Evil more formidable then the Pestilence, and in their Practise more fatal to the Publick than an Invasion of Spaniards.

And then there are those who simply put the public at risk through their own selfishness:

yet if it appear they are hearty Knaves too, will do any thing for Money, and are, by the Necessity of their Business oblig’d, or by the vehement Pursuit of their Interest, that is to say, of their Profits, push’d upon Things as effectually ruinous and destructive to the Government , as the very buying Arms and Amunition by a profest Jacobite, in order to Rebellion could be, are they not Traytors even in spite of Principle, in spite of the Name of Whig; nay, in spite of a thousand meritorious things that might otherwise be said of them, or done by them?

This means to say that they act upon their own financial interests, bet against the state, make runs upon the national bank rather than shoring it up…it all sounds so familiar. As does the government bailing them all out. That’s at best. At worst?

But to see Statesmen turn Dealers, and Men of Honour stoop to the Chicanry of Jobbing; to see Men at the Orfices in the Morning, at the P— House about Noon, at the Cabinet at Night, and at Exchange-Alley in the proper Intervals, What new Phoenomina are these? What fatal Things may these shining Planets (like the late Great Light) fore-tell to the State, and to the Publick; for when Statesmen turn Jobbers, the State may be Jobb’d.

The State may be Jobb’d. Maybe a phrase we should bring back into general use.

Like A Journal of the Plague Year, Defoe is most precise in his geographies of London — so an aside into what is of a happier interest:

The Center of the Jobbing is in the Kingdom of Exchange-Alley, and its Adjacencies; the Limits , are easily surrounded in about a Minute and a half (viz.) stepping out of Jonathan‘s into the Alley, you turn your Face full South, moving on a few Paces, and then turning Due East, you advance to Garraway‘s; from thence going out at the other Door, you go on still East into Birchin-Lane, and then halting a little at the Sword-Blade Bank to do much Mischief in fewest Words, you immediately face to the North, enter Cornhill, visit two or three petty Provinces there in your way West: And thus having Box’d your Compass, and sail’d round the whole Stock-jobbing Globe, you turn into Jonathan‘s again; and so, as most of the great Follies of Life oblige as to do, you end just where you began.

The map of ‘the whole Stock-jobbing Globe’ is below, showing where the coffee houses stood before destroyed by fire in 1748:

A map of Exchange Alley after it was razed to the ground in 1748, showing the sites of some of London’s most famous coffeehouses including Garraway’s and Jonathan’s
A map of Exchange Alley after it was razed to the ground in 1748, showing the sites of some of London’s most famous coffeehouses including Garraway’s and Jonathan’s

Here is a print showing the interior of Jonathan’s:

Jonathans_Coffee_House_w_Border

And another showing the second reincarnation of Garraway’s rebuilt after the fire, but this also demolished:

91M+60pOaiL._SL1500_

(There is an immense and wonderful history of coffee houses explored by many authors — a good summary and collection of every resource available to you online and off can be found at one of my favourite blogs – The Public Domain Review)

Now Exchange Alley is simply Change Alley, and you can follow Defoe’s instructions, but it looks very different — cold and fairly empty and immensely uninviting. Public space that no longer feels very public. There are no longer any shops at all, selling coffee or otherwise. Entering it from Lombard St:

Change Alley

From Jonathan’s:

Change Alley - Jonathan's Coffee House

South a few paces and then East to Garraway’s:

Change Alley - Garroway's Coffee House

Further East, to emerge into Birchin’s Lane:

Change Alley

But first we pass other memorialisations of food, warmth and hospitality that make you positively nostalgic for the banking and stock-jobbing that was:

Change Alley - Bakers' Chop House

Change Alley - King's Head Tavern

Birchin’s lane is still a pleasant enough place however, if it weren’t for the bankers:

Birchin Lane

The Sword-Blade Bank does not have a plaque. To Cornhill:

IMG_1860

More pictures of what was from a wider view, standing on Aldgate Street and looking to where Leadenhall and Fenchurch Streets split. Exchange Alley runs between them, though further down (as they become Cornhill and Lombard Street):

10337

And the towering structures that now represent banking might:

View down Aldgate

But to return to the scenes of non-scenic corruption — the East India Company members buying up seats in Parliament to ensure its support of their profits:

It may easily be remember’d, that the first Occasion of the Exchange-Alley Men engaging in the Case of Elections of Members, was in King William‘s Time, on the famous Disputes which happen’d between the Old East-India Company and the New; which having held a great while, and having embarrass’d not the City only, but the whole Nation, and even made it self dangerous to the Publick Business, it was expected it should be fully decided by the House of Commons: To this End the Members of both Companies, with all the Trick, Artifice, Cunning and Corruption, that Money and Interest could arm them with, bestirred themselves to be chosen Members.

Brokers rid Night and Day from one End of the Kingdom to the other, to engage Gentle∣men to bribe Corporations, to buy off Competitors, and to manage the Elections. You will see the State of Things at that Time, and the Danger this Stock jobbing Wickedness had brought the Publick to…

Sadly, bankers and stock market speculators continue to expose the public to such dangers, and we have not yet found a way to control the ups and downs of crisis, the state bailouts, or rampant greed setting policy and calling the shots for politicians. It seems to me it’s time to do so, it’s only been 294 years since Defoe first identified the problem though somehow it’s Robinson Crusoe that has become the more popular of his writings.

The anatomy of Exchange-Alley: or, a system of stock-jobbing. Proving that scandalous trade, as it is now carry’d on, to be knavish in its private practice, and treason in its publick: … By a jobber. (1719)

Defoe, Daniel, 1661?-1731.

Save

Save

Flora Tristan’s London Journal

1305530Flora Tristan (1803-1844) is half vile aristocrat and half tireless feminist fighting in the face of tremendous odds — I know, I know those aren’t exclusionary things, but their combination left me continuously unsettled. It explains why this book is strongest in its description of conditions, weakest in its exposition. Her life, too, makes for alternate feelings of pity, admiration and a spitting reflex.

When I say vile aristocrat, I mostly mean in some of her views when she wasn’t being a socialist or feminist, but she was the illegitimate daughter of an aristocratic and very wealthy Peruvian family and a French woman. After a trip to Peru she was not recognised as a legitimate heir, but was made an allowance. Admirably, this did not stop her public criticism of them — yet I couldn’t help feeling that was a bit mad as well. Part of me feels as though perhaps it is bourgeois to be that impractical about these kinds of money matters. Deborah Epstein Nord wrote:

The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal.

I think this is part of it…perhaps I would say a theatrical personality and a deep insecurity on a range of levels. I’m deeply skeptical of the way she saw change, and the way that she worked for it. From the lovely introduction by translator Jean Hawkes comes this revealing quote from a letter she wrote to Charles Poncy, recent recruit to her cause:

I’m very interested … in taking possession of your soul, your heart and your mind, because I want to use everything that is fine and good in you to help achieve my great and beautiful work (xxxv-xxxvi).

A bit vomitous. Did I say she was also beautiful? You can really tell. Throughout.

She had a strange messianic belief in herself and her role to reveal the goodness and cooperative spirit in humankind and lead them to a socialist future. Like Joan of freaking Arc. That kind of movement isn’t really one I’m interested in being part of, myself, but she was by no means unique in that idea of struggle. A peculiar mix of supreme self-centeredness and insecurity and belief in a better future. That she thought deeply, however, occasionally shines through in reasoned argument:

However, take care that you look upon political rights as only the means which will enable you to strike, through the law, at the evil roots of society and at the abuses which dominate the social order today: abuses in the organization of government and politics, commerce and agriculture, the family and religion. It is the social system, the base of the structure, which must concern you, not political power, which is but an illusion, supreme one day and overthrown the next, restored in a new form only to be overturned once more (3).

I don’t fully agree of course, and it’s curious that the economic is entirely missing here. What I loved most were her descriptions of England, her inability to escape a French nationalist fervour and her confidence in making snap judgments can be immensely amusing, but also quite perceptive:

England’s important position in the world makes one wish to know the country better, but as it is not at all an agreeable place to live in, most travelers are satisfied with a superficial glimpse, and, dazzled by the luxury of the wealthy and by the might of England’s industrial power, they never suspect the wretchedness of the poor and the hypocrisy and selfishness of the upper classes, or the price paid for the immense riches they have acquired (8).

What an enormous city London is! Its huge size, out of all proportion to the area and population of the British Isles, simultaneously calls to mind the commercial supremacy of England and her oppression of India! (16)

This is quite brilliant…I am writing this blog at the end of just such a day in fact, they still hang heavy I think:

In London melancholy is in the very air you breathe and enters in at every pore. There is nothing more gloomy or disquieting than the aspect of the city on a day of fog or rain or black frost. Only succumb to its influence and your head becomes painfully heavy, your digestion sluggish, your respiration laboured for lack of fresh air, and your whole body is overcome by lassitude. Then you are in the grip of what the English call “spleen”: a profound despair, unaccountable anguish, cantankerous hatred for those one loves the best, disgust with everything, and an irresistible desire to end one’s life by suicide (22).

There is the most extraordinary section where she dresses as a Turk to attend the House of Commons (women not being allowed). Part of me applauds, but then she writes this:

Although the Turk and I outwardly maintained the calm bearing of the true Ottoman, they must have guessed how distressed and embarrassed we were feeling. Yet without the slightest respect for my status as a woman and a foreigner, or for the fact I was there in disguise, all these so-called gentlemen passed in front of me, staring at me boldly through their lorgnettes and exchanging remarks about me in loud voices (60).

Her comments are choice on the old House of Commons (that one what burned down):

In appearance nothing could be meaner or more commonplace; it puts one in mind of a shop (60).

Old_House_of_Commons_chamber,_F._G._O._Stuart
House of Commons; A. D. White Collection of Architectural Photographs, Cornell University Library (Accession Number: 15/5/3090.01024)

 

Her comments seem a bit harsh. Then she heads over to the House of Lords and writes:

I saw that I was in the presence of true gentlemen, tolerant of a lady’s whims and even making it a point of honour to respect them. The English nobility, despite its aloofness, possesses an urbanity of manner, a politeness one seeks in vain amongst the overlords of finance — or in any other class (63).

We all know which side of the barricades she will be on come the revolution. She did visit a brewery though, which I applaud her for:

Beer and gas are the two main products consumed in London. I went to see the superb brewery of Barclay Perkins which is certainly well worth a visit. This establishment is very spacious: no expense has been spared in its equipment. Nobody would tell me how many litres of beer it produces each year, but to judge from the size of the vats, it must amount to an extraordinary quantity. It was in one of these vats – the largest, it is true – that Messrs Barclay and Perkins once invited a member of the English royal family to a dinner at which more than fifty guests were present. This particular vat is 30 metres high! (72).

A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark
A Birds Eye View of the Brewery of Messrs Barclay, Perkins & Compy, Park Street Southwark

But again and again you butt up against the prejudices of her character, as in this description of the inmates of Newgate Prison (I will say that she was very thorough in her investigations, and these descriptions are fascinating):

Nearly all the women I saw there were of the lowest class:
prostitutes, servants or country girls accused of theft. Four on charges carrying the death penalty for crimes classified as felonies under English law. Most of them seemed to be of low intelligence, but I noticed several whose tight thin lips, pointed nose, sharp chin, deep-set eyes and sly look I took as signs of exceptional depravity. I saw only one woman there who aroused my interest. She was confined with six others in a dark, damp low-ceilinged cell; when we entered they all rose and made us the customary servile curtsey which had embarrassed and irritated me from the moment I set foot in the prison. One alone refrained and it was this sign of independence which attracted my attention. Picture a young woman of twenty-four, small, well-made and tastefully dressed, standing with head held high to reveal a perfect profile, graceful neck, delicate well-formed ear, and hair a model of neatness and cleanliness. My readers have already had occasion to remark the effect that beauty has upon me and will readily understand my feelings at the sight of this pretty creature; my eyes filled with tears and only the presence of the governor prevented me from going up to her and taking her hand so that she might understand my interest in her fate and so that my sympathy might calm for a few moments the sufferings of her heart (115).

Such descriptions infuriate me, inflected as they are with intense class prejudice and the equation of beauty with goodness. I can have no sympathy with her from this point on.

Still, I did enjoy reading things like this, on England’s stand on the slave trade:

So the great act of humanity that the English have boasted about for thirty years was nothing but a carefully calculated financial transaction — and for thirty years the whole of Europe has been deceived! The fraudulence of the honourable members of the English Parliament has persuaded us to put our trust in the philanthropy and altruism of a pack of traders! (161)

Ha, her disgust at a pack of traders! I’ll be coming back to her marvelous descriptions however, putting them alongside other narratives and photographs old and new, this book is truly a marvelous resource for such things as the Horseferry gas works, the Irish quarter off Oxford Circus, Holborn, Field Lane, and interestingly, pockets. Look for upcoming blog posts. The final interesting fact is that Paul Gaugin was Tristan’s grandson…I’m not sure if this helps explain him at all, but it just might.

Another post examining her brilliant descriptions of the gasworks in Horseferry Road can be found here.

([1842] 1982) Virago Press

Save

A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearDaniel Defoe ([1722] 2003)

A Journal of the Plague Year is grim, strangely gripping almost in spite of its author.

I had to try and remember that this is so early, among the earliest of the many claims of earliest novels — that’s hard enough. Written decades after the events it is describing, it’s still questioned how much of it is based on Daniel Defoe’s uncle’s diary (he himself was 5 at the time he describes in such detail), how much is historical research, how much is ‘novel’. It’s strangely removed yet at the same time close enough to be fairly terrifying.

Many claim it as part of the psychogeography tradition, an early example of a literary mapping of London, and I confess that is what I liked the most. The street by street, parish by parish descriptions, the sense of all London reading the death lists, waiting, watching the plague move from West to East and South but all the while hoping it wouldn’t reach them. Getting some sense of what these times were like, how they were lived so far removed from imagination and Hollywood’s occasional depictions. It’s hard to believe that it all started only a short distance from where I work every day in Holborn.

I haven’t read much beyond wikipedia and short descriptions, but what bothered me most was trying to decide how much irony is in this, how much is written straight faced. I just couldn’t tell. From the point of view of someone who doesn’t identify with the rich but with the poor, it is fairly staggering. He rails against the thievery, the lengths to which the well-off had to go when fleeing the city to protect their property–there is so much here about protecting property. So damn much. Yet he himself lists the multiple professions, the thousands that lost all work and hope of sustenance when the plague hit London. The many families who fled the cities, firing their servants and turning them out of their homes penniless and with nowhere to go.

He writes at one point of the plague as a kind of deliverance, how it:

carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very poor people which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty; that is to say, the whole city could not have supported the expense of them, or have provided food for them; and they would in time have even been driven to the necessity of plundering either the city itself or the country adjacent, to have subsisted themselves…

In fact, it is extremely noticeable that all of the much vaunted charity of the city and ‘gentlemen’ of the country is primarily a measure to stop mass starvation resulting in rebellion and theft. Personally, I was angry enough at it that I was hoping for a little more pillage, for some distribution of the high life in this time of horror, especially as he describes the frightful conditions under which people lived. Their desperation is visible in the number of people willing to risk their lives for the small pay offered them to nurse the sick and watch at their doors and dig the graves and collect and bury the dead.

While praising London’s government for running the city well through it all, Defoe blames the poor for spreading the plague, for not remaining shut up in their houses like the wealthy, waiting out the infection:

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and liable to infection…

As though people seek out such employment when they don’t need to eat. There is also a curious interlude when he reproaches some men getting drunk in a pub and laughing at those praying and grieving. He tells them to repent, to learn from his own behaviour, and tells them he is saved by God…As I say, almost over the top enough that it could be stab at some critique of the religious and the rich, but left me with the feeling that it’s probably not, or not critical enough. Though it has contradictory opinions in it to fill another book sorting them all out.

Thank god I live now.

Save

Save

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

A miserable, cold, rainy sort of day, that started with snow and sleet. In spite of that there were a lot of us gathering for the South London feeder march to City Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Cressingham Gardens in the house (one of them, you can just barely see, had the best pair of boots I have seen in forever, in campaign colours as well!):

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Bring Back the Bow Back — nice to see the National Bargee Travellers Association here:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Making up and little for the rain and cold, it was good to see tenants emerging from their balconies and doorways, cheering us on, picking up the chants:

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Fortitude seemed a good title.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

We met up with the East London contingent at Tower Bridge…scenic, but no place to get a feeling for how many people came together at all.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

And finally arriving at the Town Hall.

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

March for Homes, 31 January 2015

Save

The Years of Virginia Woolf

10357431I didn’t like Virginia Woolf’s work when I first read it long ago. It was Mrs Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, I can’t remember. It seemed all a big fuss about nothing to me, and I thought if she had poverty or a job grinding the life out of her she might well be better off.

I’m not sure I was wrong. Still, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.

A year or so ago my partner convinced me to read Orlando and I loved it, found it hilarious and imaginative and thought provoking.

The Years explained some of this disconnection to me. I had the same early frustrations in the opening chapter. I then sat on a very uncomfortable coach next to a barely-if-at-all overweight woman who still managed to spill into my seat and who didn’t seem to mind just what she was doing with her elbows for over two hours and read and read (after I had passed that sleepy stage) and my mind fell into the same cadences as the prose and my new older and wiser self recognised that swift passing of years, the ellipsing of time, the changing of things and the diverging of people, and I thought maybe I loved this book too. I walked from Victoria coach station to the underground with Woolf’s narrative voice in my head, describing the branches bare against the leaden skies and the bitter winds that crept down the neck of my coat and I wondered why I had not thought to bring a scarf, which I only like to wear on the very coldest of days but the day was very cold. The blue one, a beautiful and mathematically-amazing wool moebius strip that my mother knitted for me and I wore for the very first time in Limerick.

The priggishness of Belgravia took a little of the joy away. Martin lives on Ebury St, only one street away from my path between buses and trains, which she describes as a gloomy thoroughfare. But for their former servant Crosby in 1913, now working with another family:

She felt more herself in Ebury Street than in Richmond. A common sort of people lived in Richmond she always felt (169).

Ebury St

The pigeon cheered me up when I took this picture at least. I wondered too if Crosby would have found Ian Flaming common, when he lived on this street.

I spent one extremely terrible post-rave-on-the-Thames-Beach-can’t-let-the-party-stop-cocktails-and-card-playing night in one of the terraced houses one street over through some bizarre ironies of circumstance. I found it opulent without being interesting or revealing of character, and very oppressive.

I do love Woolf’s beautiful descriptions of London though, the groundedness of them as she replays us her memories, perhaps saying goodbye to them in a way. I’ve added my favourites at the end of the post.

The distance between some of them and what the places actually evoke in me perhaps explains why I finished the last fifty pages or so that night, and they helped crystallise my dislike. These pages bring us current, when the younger generation does the thinking, tries to muddle through it all. The year is unspecified, some time after the war, perhaps closer to the book’s date of publication in 1937?

I had been thinking, in that walk between coach and tube, that absolutely no one had been able to communicate, to speak openly and frankly about their troubles, to gain clarity of meaning either in their own thoughts or in their expression. With one exception (that one time Maggie and Martin sit beneath a tree one fine day, and he tells her everything that is troubling him).

But no one else can speak.

No one else can clarify what they want, what they believe, what they need.

No one can unburden themselves of the pressure of words, things unspoken.

It occurred to me suddenly that this stream of consciousness, these descriptions lathered across page after page that jumped from image to incident to thought and back again, reflect an uncertainty in the author as strong as that seen in Eleanor. Perhaps it is simply a way to characterise this generation, to set a mood and a tone. But perhaps Woolf has thrown everything on the page for us, everything that crosses her mind, everything she sees and hears she feels somehow are important and all the thoughts that come skipping along, hoping that out of it we can find some pattern, some deeper meaning.

At the end it felt almost like a yielding of her own agency, a releasing of frustration. That War and Peace moment with the general far removed from battle as everything is let go into the flow of time passing and the movement of nature and humankind. But in miniature, with nothing at stake. It is left for the next generation to struggle to give her words meaning. To find her life’s purpose.

In the final pages North and Peggy hammer and hammer away at this inability to understand, to speak, to get to the truth of their own desires. They do so at a party of pleasure and immense privilege, the upper middle classes at their sparkling leisure. It’s thrown by Delia, the most interesting character to me by far fighting for the cause of Irish independence, but she appears only at the beginning and the end. I think because Delia’s edges are too sharp for the novel’s effect of blurriness, she knew struggle and heartbreak even though her marriage casts a shadow across the strength of her ideals. Instead we cast about with other Pargiters unable to grasp their own beliefs:

He paused. There was the glass in his hand; in his mind a sentence. And he wanted to make other sentences. But how can I, he thought — he looked at Eleanor, who sat with a silk handkerchief in her hands — unless I know what’s solid, what’s true; in my life, in other people’s lives? (313)

Then he shut up. It’s no go, North thought. He can’t say what he wants to say; he’s afraid. They’re all afraid; afraid of being laughed at; afraid of giving themselves away. He’s afraid too, he thought, looking at the young man with a fine forehead and a weak chin who was gesticulating too emphatically. We’re all afraid of each other, her thought; afraid of what? Of criticism; of laughter; of people who think differently… (315)

This party…it filled me with disdain, I confess, for brittle enjoyment and all of the things people of this class could not allow themselves to say. That stopped their minds and lips completely. Their silences became self-serving. I thought about their servant Crosby who served them but in old age was let go and made to serve others, I thought about their pettiness, their ambition, their privilege. Their unquestioning natures, even as they focused on detail and minutiae. Their multiple and mutual dislikes and discomforts.

The novel opens with the father figure, Colonel Pargiter in his club chatting with other members also returned from the business of Empire. Three fingers on the one hand are stumps, lost in his fighting to put down the mutiny. He dies never having told his children what really troubles him, though he yearns to speak to someone. In the novel it appears to be the trouble of his mistress, but I couldn’t help but feel the silence is one not just of male privilege and desire (and loneliness), but also of Empire. He leaves his friends abruptly in the club to think his own thoughts. Remember his own stories.

Stories we never hear. War and death stories. (I found out more here).

Perhaps this is the foundational silence. He is where this novel begins, where everything begins for Eleanor, and the generations that follow. The wealth of conquest is the basis for this position in society, a way of life that permits both the freedom and sets the limits for their thoughts. Their mother dying seems nothing but a weight to them all. A silent one.

Eleanor’s realisation — that in fact is the opposite of realisation —  comes at the end:

There must be another life, she thought, sinking back into her chair, exasperated. Not in dreams; but here and now, in this room, with living people. She felt as if she were standing on the edge of a precipice with her hair blown back; she was about to grasp something that just evaded her. There must be another life, here and now, she repeated. This is too short, too broken. We know nothing, even about ourselves (325).

We know nothing. Everything is broken. All we have are these moments, impressions, fleeting happinesses that we cannot explain.

The back of my book says that this was Woolf’s most popular work in her lifetime…this must have resonated.

But ah, her descriptions of the city. Like this one on the Strand, 1891, walking from the courts of justice…I love this street too, could share in this.

The uproar, the confusion, the space of the Strand came upon her with a shock of relief. She felt herself expand. It was still daylight here; a rush, a stir, a turmoil of variegated life came racing towards her, in the world. It was as if something had broken loose — in her, in the world. She seemed, after her concentration, to be dissipated, tossed about. She wandered along the Strand, looking with pleasure at the racing street; at the shops full of bright chains and leather cases’ at the white-face churches; at the irregular jagged roofs laced across and across with wires. Above was the dazzle of a watery but gleaming sky. The wind blew in her face. She breathed in a gulp of fresh wet air….

Cabs, vans and omnibuses streamed past; they seemed to rush the air into her face; they splashed the mud on to the pavement. People jostled and hustled and she quickened her pace in time with theirs (85).

and then she reads that Parnell is dead…

To Covent Garden, 1907: Covent Garden when it was still a market, when this kind of business still took place in the city and its connection to the countryside and the origins of its food still strong, I love this too:

All along the silent country roads leading to London carts plodded; the iron reins fixed in the iron hands, for vegetables, fruit, flowers traveled slowly. Heaped high with round crates of cabbage, cherries, carnations, they looked like caravans piled with the goods of the tribes migrating in search of water, driven by enemies to seek new pasturage. On they plodded, down this road, that road, keeping close to the kerb. even the horses, had they been blind, could have heard the hum of London in the distance; and the drivers, dozing, yet saw through half-shut eyes the fiery gauze of the eternally burning city. At dawn, at Coven Garden, they laid down their burdens; tables and trestles, even the cobbles were frilled as with some celestial laundry with cabbages, cherries and carnations (101).

Wandsworth, 1913:  Some thoughts on class and place, a little self-defensive snobbishness as Eleanor sells the house in Abercorn Terrace where she grew up and took care of her father:

As he went downstairs, she noticed the red ears which  stood out over his high collar; and the neck which he had washed imperfectly in some sink at Wandsworth. She was annoyed; as he went round the house, sniffing and peering, he had indicted their cleanliness, their humanity, and he used absurdly long words. He was hauling himself up into the class above him, she supposed, by means of long words (165-166).

Milton St, Present Day, North visiting Sarah:  and more reflections on class and housing (if this is actually today’s Milton St it has been swallowed by the Barbican, nothing left that is dusky or old):

This was Milton Street, a dusky street, with old houses, now let out as lodgings; but they had seen better days.

***

‘What a dirty,’ he said, as sat still in the car for a moment — here a woman crossed the street with a jug under her arm — ‘sordid,’ he added, ‘low-down street to live in. (237)’

…There was a curious smell in the hall; of vegetables cooking; and the oily brown paper made it dark. he went up the stairs of what had once been a gentleman’s residence. The banisters were carved; but they had been daubed over with some cheap yellow varnish (238).

‘Why d’you always choose slums–‘ he was beginning., for children were screaming in the street below, when the door opened and a girl came in carrying a bunch of knives and forks. The regular lodging-house skivvy, North thought; with red hands, and one of those jaunty white caps that girls in lodging houses clap on top of their hair when the lodger has a party (240).

Abercorn Terrace, Present Day, Eleanor to Peggy in a cab

‘That’s where we used to live,’ she said. She waved her hand towards a long lamp-starred street on the left. Peggy, looking out, could just see the imposing unbroken avenue with its succession of pale pillars and steps. The repeated columns., the orderly architecture, had even a pale pompous beauty as one stucco column repeated another stucco column repeated another stucco column all down the street (254).

Abercorn Terrace (which doesn’t exist in London, though a Lord Abercorn was head of the British South Africa Company) is ‘a replica of 22 Hyde Park Gate where Woolf grew up’ writes Nuala Casey, who sees this as a book of ghosts — I like thinking of this book like that. But while the house itself might be a replica, the street is certainly not. Because this is the street:

Hyde Park Gate

I imagine the new buildings are from bomb damage, but seems that this was always an odd street of unique homes. Lived in by four more blue plaque winners, Winston Churchill, Robert Baden-Powell the founder of Scouts, Enid Bagnold the author of National Velvet and sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein (Blue plaques are so damn useful).

Woolf’s house is bigger, far grander than I was expecting from her description, I could not fit it into a camera view, there is another floor above and the main entrance is down the stairs on the lower level:

22 Hyde Park Gate

22 Hyde Park Gate

I perhaps could have tried for a better picture, a different angle, but I didn’t like this street, didn’t feel comfortable here. Two men in suits stood talking at the end of it. Most of Kensington, in fact, looms above you in wealth and monumental architecture of five stories and higher. Inequality hiding the sky from you. I found relief only in the winter stripped branches of trees beautiful against the tarnished clouds at the end of the street and across the road in Kensington Gardens. But then there is this, this massive gilded gaud of a thing:

Albert Memorial

The Royal Albert Memorial facing the huge red brick mansions of Kensington Gore alongside the Royal Albert Hall. Everywhere monuments of wealth and ambition, and perhaps a strange kind of love. Perhaps.

I thought to myself that this place, this wealth and ambition written into architecture, this inequality looming large, this is no place to raise children. And perhaps that is just the trouble, this intertwining of mental health and power and privilege into something that harms everyone.

Save