I loved York, it’s my brother T’s favourite UK city and I could see why…the old medieval streets, the timber framed buildings all slopes and angles, the cathedral and the old churches, Guy Fawkes’ house, Jacobs’ Well, the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild Hall (maybe I’ll get a chance to write about them…but, who are we kidding? I probably won’t), at least three haunted pubs, a number of brilliant bookshops (my case was unbearably heavy heading home and we didn’t even see them all), city walls you can walk on, ruins from the Romans on down, something like 23 cat sculptures hidden on buildings to be found, the most delicious lemon cake I’ve had in some time and ham sandwich triangles from Betty’s Tea Shop, and one of the most beautiful Art Deco cinemas I have ever seen.
It couldn’t help but make me think back to Sitte, Cullen, Alexander about how cities can create drama as you move through them. York curves and opens up unexpectedly, it still has its old narrow passages to what I think must have been once-crowded closes now gone from most cities. It gives such delight, and I know it is mainly because this wasn’t bombed (or then regenerated) flat but still…such delight.
And I do not use the word ‘delight’ very often in the same sentence as Bohemian, and this first quote shows why, describing a tiny Moorish cafe:
Dark hair, dark eyes, sallow-skinned faces everywhere, here and there a low caste Englishman, and sometimes, if you are lucky, a Bohemian in emerald corduroy, lolling broadly on his chair and puffing at a porcelain pipe. Sit down near him, and it is ten to one that you will be engaged in a wordy battle of acting, of poetry, or of pictures, before the sediment has time to settle in your coffee. (122)
It’s all there, the search to inhabit the quaint or the exotic, the dress that attempts both, but also the fascination and joy in all night discussions of things like words. It describes a life of relative poverty, but one you drop down into and you don’t drop all the way — you realise that when they still have a maid or at least someone to bring them their dinner. It’s a mixed bag, but this book has all the best of it. Besides, even C.L.R. James loved his first stay in Bloomsbury.
And then, the poignant, painful self-abandon when at last you are conquered, and a book leads you by the hand to the passionless little man inside the shop, and makes you pay him money, the symbol, mean, base, sordid in itself, but still the symbol that the book has won, and swayed the pendulum of your emotions past the paying point.
I remember the buying of my “Anatomy of Melancholy” (that I have never read, nor ever mean to–I dare not risk the sweetness of the title)… (137)
I have been conquered that way so many times.
On Fleet Street, that I love:
Indeed, Fleet Street, brave show as it is today, must have been splendid then, seen through old Temple Bar, a turning, narrow thorough-fare, with high-gabled houses a little overhanging the pavements, those pavements where crowds of gentlemen, frizzed and wigged, in coloured coats and knee-breeches, went to and fro about their business. There would come strutting little Goldsmith in the plum-coloured suit, and the sword so big that it seemed a pin and he a fly upon it. There would be Johnson, rolling in his gait, his vast stomach swinging before him, his huge laugh bellying out in the narrow street, with Boswell at his side, leaning round to see his face, and catch each word as it fell from his lips. There would be Doctor Kenrick, Goldsmith’s arch enemy, for whose fault he broke a stick over the back of Bookseller Evans, and got a pummelling for his pains. There would be the usual mob of young fellows
trying as gaily then as now to keep head above water by writing for the Press.
And then think of it in a later time, when Hazlitt walked those pavements, with straight, well-meant strides, as befits a man who has done his thirty miles a day along the Great North Road. Perhaps, as he walked, he would be composing his remarks on the oratory of the House of Commons, which he was engaged to report for Mr. Perry of the Morning Chronicle. Or perhaps, if it were Wednesday, he would turn in at Mitre Court, or meet a slim-legged, black-clothed figure with a beautiful head, Charles Lamb, coming out of the archway, or hurrying in there, with a folio under his arm, fresh from the stall of the second-hand bookseller. Perhaps Lamb might be playing the journalist himself, writing jokes for Dan Stuart of the Morning Post. You remember: “Somebody has said that to swallow six cross-buns daily, consecutively, for a fortnight would surfeit the stoutest digestion. But to have to furnish as many jokes daily, and that not for a fortnight, but for a long twelvemonth, as we were constrained to do, was a little harder exaction.” Or, perhaps, you might meet Coleridge coming that way from his uncomfortable lodging in the office of the Courier up the Strand. Coleridge knew the ills of journalistic life. De Quincey “called on him daily and pitied his forlorn condition,” and left us a description of his lodging. De Quincey had known worse himself, but this was evil enough. “There was no bell in the room, which for many months answered the double purpose of bedroom and sitting-room. Consequently I often saw him, picturesquely enveloped in nightcaps, surmounted by handkerchiefs indorsed upon handkerchiefs, shouting from the attics down three or four flights of stairs to a certain * Mrs. Brainbridge,’ his sole attendant, whose dwelling was in the subterranean regions of the house. There did I often see the philosopher, with the most lugubrious of faces, invoking with all his might this uncouth name of ‘Brainbridge’ each syllable of which he intonated with long-drawn emphasis, in order to overpower the hostile hub-bub coming downwards from the creaking press and the roar from the Strand which entered at all the front windows.
And now there are these different Fleet Streets, one on the top of the other, dovetailed together indistinguishably. A building here, an old doorway there, the name of a side street, brings back a memory of one age or another. This tavern, for example, was given its name as a jest by a gay-dressed fellow in long locks, with a sword swinging at his side. there is the street of the White Friars. That building was designed by a subject of Queen Anne. Lamb walked past while those offices were still cradled in their scaffolding.
On a sunny morning there is no jollier sight in all the world than to look down Fleet Street, from a little below the corner of Fetter Lane on that side of the road. The thorough-fare is thronged with buses–green for Whitechapel, blue going to Waterloo Bridge, white for Liverpool Street, gay old survivals of the coaching days… (154)
I love our red buses but this still fills me with a desire for colour-coding…
This is youth and joy and excitement in words, paintings, life lived to the fullest in long nights drinking and talking and drinking and talking some more. It is a different kind of devotion to literature or art, made possible by relatively cheap lodgings (oh London, you don’t know what you are destroying) and some limited freedom from the life of toil. It is life best in its full flush of youth, when a small sum earned from an article feels like gold and is spent on wine before age and children and the fight for survival has stripped all the joy away (Gissing makes this world hard to imagine in New Grub Street, but I believe that at times and for some it was really there).
It is an age long gone I think. But we still laugh and stay up all night talking over wine. Just not as picturesquely.
There is a description of the loveliest wedding party ever in Soho, gossip and chit chat galore. Plenty to smile at. But this is also an immensely erudite collection of who said what where in these little corners of the city Ransome loves.
So back to Fleet Street, he gives a list of pubs and clubs and the people who met there and the poems and epigraphs that they wrote, the discussions they had and, well, it is inspiration to go drinking I must say. But you cannot do them all at once, as he writes:
To sup with ale at the Cheshire Cheese, to drink at the Punch Bowl, at the Green Dragon, at the Mitre, at the Cock, at the Grecian, at the George, at the Edinburgh — in short, to beat the bounds of every tavern in Fleet Street, from Ludgate Circus to the Strand, that is a festival too peripatetic to be comfortable, an undertaking too serious to be lighthearted.
But one at a time? Oh yes. The Cheshire Cheese is already much beloved by me, so I shall just end with the description of that one:
ar down on the Fetter Lane side of the street there is the Cheshire Cheese, still the dirty-fronted, low-browed tavern, with stone flasks in the window, that it was even before Johnson’s time. Here, so people say, Johnson and Goldsmith used to sup and be merry with their friends. Perhaps it vv^as the haunt of one of the talking clubs of which neither of them was ever tired. Although it is nowhere written that Johnson crossed the threshold, it is very unlikely that the man who asserted that “a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity” could have neglected such an opportunity as was his. For he lived for some time in Wine Office Court, in whose narrow passage is the entrance to the tavern, and I doubt if he could have passed it every day without finding some reason for encouraging it. Indeed, with Macaulayic logic, they show you Johnson’s corner seat, the wall behind it rubbed smooth by the broadcloth of innumerable visitors, “to witness if they lie.” It is a pleasant brown room, this, in the tavern, with Johnson’s portrait hanging on the wall, old wooden benches beside good solid tables, and a homely smell of ale and toasted cheese.Here many of the best-known journalists make a practice of dining, and doubtless get some sauce of amusement with their meat from the young men and girls, literary and pictorial, destined to work for the cheap magazines and fashion papers, who always begin their professional career by visiting the Cheshire Cheese for inspiration. Up a winding, crooked, dark staircase there are other rooms, with long tables in them stained with wine and ale, and in one of them the Rhymers’ Club used to meet, to drink from tankards, smoke clay pipes, and recite their own poetry. (161-162)
I quite loved The Pickwick Papers. I’ve been making my way through Dickens in chronological order (beginning with Sketches by Boz), but while I blithely cut and pasted my favourite passages into a draft thanks to Project Gutenberg, I did not blog it properly before moving on to blogging Oliver Twist(though I’m not quite done with him yet). It matched better with Flora Tristan’s London Journals (though I’m not quite done with her either).
The 31st of March marked the anniversary of the publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, however, making me feel bad about my pasted quotations languishing in draft-form obscurity. While this post is now two days past due, it is something. I cannot imagine a way to summarise this novel, think of something deep to say about it, explain just why I enjoyed it so much.
So instead I present a few of my favourite bits.
On old inns, the ways that every generation looks fondly backwards, and indirectly the entrance of everyone’s favourite character, Samuel Weller:
There are in London several old inns, once the headquarters of
celebrated coaches in the days when coaches performed their journeys in a graver and more solemn manner than they do in these times; but which have now degenerated into little more than the abiding and booking-places of country wagons. The reader would look in vain for any of these ancient hostelries, among the Golden Crosses and Bull and Mouths, which rear their stately fronts in the improved streets of London. If he would light upon any of these old places, he must direct his steps to the obscurer quarters of the town, and there in some secluded nooks he will find several, still standing with a kind of gloomy sturdiness, amidst the modern innovations which surround them.
In the Borough especially, there still remain some half-dozen old inns, which have preserved their external features unchanged, and which have escaped alike the rage for public improvement and the encroachments of private speculation. Great, rambling queer old places they are, with galleries, and passages, and staircases, wide enough and antiquated enough to furnish materials for a hundred ghost stories, supposing we should ever be reduced to the lamentable necessity of inventing any, and that the world should exist long enough to exhaust the innumerable veracious legends connected with old London Bridge, and its adjacent neighbourhood on the Surrey side.
There is, of course, still an inn like this in Borough — The George. I recommend it, though best in summer when the annoying throngs that visit can sit outside and you can enjoy the rambling queer inside. It only smells funny because it is old.
I like the glimpse of Pickwick’s home, before it is shattered by Mrs. Bardell’s legal team:
Mr. Pickwick’s apartments in Goswell Street, although on a limited scale, were not only of a very neat and comfortable description, but peculiarly adapted for the residence of a man of his genius and observation. His sitting-room was the first-floor front, his bedroom the second-floor front; and thus, whether he were sitting at his desk in his parlour, or standing before the dressing-glass in his dormitory, he had an equal opportunity of contemplating human nature in all the numerous phases it exhibits, in that not more populous than popular thoroughfare.
His landlady, Mrs. Bardell–the relict and sole executrix of a deceased custom-house officer–was a comely woman of bustling manners and agreeable appearance, with a natural genius for cooking, improved by study and long practice, into an exquisite talent. There were no children, no servants, no fowls. The only other inmates of the house were a large man and a small boy; the first a lodger, the second a production of Mrs. Bardell’s. The large man was always home precisely at ten o’clock at night, at which hour he regularly condensed himself into the limits of a dwarfish French bedstead in the back parlour; and the infantine sports and gymnastic exercises of Master Bardell were exclusively confined to the neighbouring pavements and gutters. Cleanliness and quiet reigned throughout the house; and in it Mr. Pickwick’s will was law.
While I might not agree with the sentiments, I feel sure Dickens copied this dialogue word for word in a pub somewhere:
‘Rum creeters is women,’ said the dirty-faced man, after a pause.
‘Ah! no mistake about that,’ said a very red-faced man, behind a cigar.
After this little bit of philosophy there was another pause.
‘There’s rummer things than women in this world though, mind you,’ said the man with the black eye, slowly filling a large Dutch pipe, with a most capacious bowl.
‘Are you married?’ inquired the dirty-faced man.
‘Can’t say I am.’
‘I thought not.’ Here the dirty-faced man fell into ecstasies of mirth at his own retort, in which he was joined by a man of bland voice and placid countenance, who always made it a point to agree with everybody.
What is probably the best poem ever, by Mrs Leo Hunter. It beats out — though barely — the phenomenal poem about Dick Turpin that I present closer to the end of this post:
Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Being at LSE I came to know Holborn well, and each and every one of its surrounding pubs. This one once sat in the epicentre of these pub ramblings — or pumblings:
With this direction, and having been furthermore informed that the hostelry in question was situated in a court, happy in the double advantage of being in the vicinity of Clare Market, and closely approximating to the back of New Inn, Mr. Pickwick and Sam descended the rickety staircase in safety, and issued forth in quest of the Magpie and Stump.
This favoured tavern, sacred to the evening orgies of Mr. Lowten and his companions, was what ordinary people would designate a public-house. That the landlord was a man of money-making turn was sufficiently testified by the fact of a small bulkhead beneath the tap-room window, in size and shape not unlike a sedan-chair, being underlet to a mender of shoes: and that he was a being of a philanthropic mind was evident from the protection he afforded to a pieman, who vended his delicacies without fear of interruption, on the very door-step. In the lower windows, which were decorated with curtains of a saffron hue, dangled two or three printed cards, bearing reference to Devonshire cider and Dantzic spruce, while a large blackboard, announcing in white letters to an enlightened public, that there were 500,000 barrels of double stout in the cellars of the establishment, left the mind in a state of not unpleasing doubt and uncertainty as to the precise direction in the bowels of the earth, in which this mighty cavern might be supposed to extend. When we add that the weather-beaten signboard bore the half-obliterated semblance of a magpie intently eyeing a crooked streak of brown paint, which the neighbours had been taught from infancy to consider as the ‘stump,’ we have said all that need be said of the exterior of the edifice.
There was actually (and is) a Magpie and Stump opposite the Old Bailey — a bit far and so hitherto unvisited, but apparently the good old George IV most likely stands on the site of the one Dickens described here. But really I need to get over to the George and Vulture – mentioned many a time in this book though without the same delicious description, and ‘the headquarters of the City Pickwick Club since its foundation.’ I found a Dickens pub crawl with no real effort of course, and while the digital Dickens website makes me realise I have nothing new to add on the subject of Dickens, at least I am among the good company of those who try.
On Portugal St, now at the heart of LSE and its absence felt as a loss by me but clearly replaced by reality television for those who once filled its halls:
In a lofty room, ill-lighted and worse ventilated, situated in Portugal Street, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, there sit nearly the whole year round, one, two, three, or four gentlemen in wigs, as the case may be, with little writing-desks before them, constructed after the fashion of those used by the judges of the land, barring the French polish. There is a box of barristers on their right hand; there is an enclosure of insolvent debtors on their left; and there is an inclined plane of most especially dirty faces in their front. These gentlemen are the Commissioners of the Insolvent Court, and the place in which they sit, is the Insolvent Court itself.
It is, and has been, time out of mind, the remarkable fate of this court to be, somehow or other, held and understood, by the general consent of all the destitute shabby-genteel people in London, as their common resort, and place of daily refuge. It is always full. The steams of beer and spirits perpetually ascend to the ceiling, and, being condensed by the heat, roll down the walls like rain; there are more old suits of clothes in it at one time, than will be offered for sale in all Houndsditch in a twelvemonth; more unwashed skins and grizzly beards than all the pumps and shaving-shops between Tyburn and Whitechapel could render decent, between sunrise and sunset.
It must not be supposed that any of these people have the least shadow of business in, or the remotest connection with, the place they so indefatigably attend. If they had, it would be no matter of surprise, and the singularity of the thing would cease. Some of them sleep during the greater part of the sitting; others carry small portable dinners wrapped in pocket-handkerchiefs or sticking out of their worn-out pockets, and munch and listen with equal relish; but no one among them was ever known to have the slightest personal interest in any case that was ever brought forward. Whatever they do, there they sit from the first moment to the last. When it is heavy, rainy weather, they all come in, wet through; and at such times the vapours of the court are like those of a fungus-pit.
A casual visitor might suppose this place to be a temple dedicated to the Genius of Seediness. There is not a messenger or process-server attached to it, who wears a coat that was made for him; not a tolerably fresh, or wholesome-looking man in the whole establishment, except a little white-headed apple-faced tipstaff, and even he, like an ill-conditioned cherry preserved in brandy, seems to have artificially dried and withered up into a state of preservation to which he can lay no natural claim.
This description of a religious meeting by the elder Mr Weller is pure genius:
I dresses myself out wery smart, and off I goes with the old ‘ooman, and up we walks into a fust-floor where there was tea-things for thirty, and a whole lot o’ women as begins whisperin’ to one another, and lookin’ at me, as if they’d never seen a rayther stout gen’l’m’n of eight-and-fifty afore. By and by, there comes a great bustle downstairs, and a lanky chap with a red nose and a white neckcloth rushes up, and sings out, “Here’s the shepherd a-coming to wisit his faithful flock;” and in comes a fat chap in black, vith a great white face, a-smilin’ avay like clockwork. Such goin’s on, Sammy! “The kiss of peace,” says the shepherd; and then he kissed the women all round, and ven he’d done, the man vith the red nose began. I was just a-thinkin’ whether I hadn’t better begin too–‘specially as there was a wery nice lady a-sittin’ next me–ven in comes the tea, and your mother-in-law, as had been makin’ the kettle bile downstairs. At it they went, tooth and nail. Such a precious loud hymn, Sammy, while the tea was a brewing; such a grace, such eatin’ and drinkin’! I wish you could ha’ seen the shepherd walkin’ into the ham and muffins.
As is this commentary by the elder Mr Weller on poetry:
‘Wery glad to hear it,’ said Mr. Weller. ‘Poetry’s unnat’ral; no man ever talked poetry ‘cept a beadle on boxin’-day, or Warren’s blackin’, or Rowland’s oil, or some of them low fellows; never you let yourself down to talk poetry, my boy. Begin agin, Sammy.’
And on compliments:
Wot’s the good o’ callin’ a young ‘ooman a Wenus or a angel,
‘Ah! what, indeed?’ replied Sam.
‘You might jist as well call her a griffin, or a unicorn, or a king’s
arms at once, which is wery well known to be a collection o’ fabulous animals,’ added Mr. Weller.
‘Just as well,’ replied Sam.
‘Drive on, Sammy,’ said Mr. Weller.
His view of Camberwell (as opposed to Gissing’s among others):
‘I don’t like it, Sam,’ rejoined Mr. Weller. ‘I never know’d a
respectable coachman as wrote poetry, ‘cept one, as made an affectin’ copy o’ werses the night afore he was hung for a highway robbery; and he wos only a Cambervell man, so even that’s no rule.’
And a mention of Brixton — I am collecting the literary geographies of South London you see:
The office of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, of the Stock Exchange, was in a first floor up a court behind the Bank of England; the house of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was at Brixton, Surrey; the horse and stanhope of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, were at an adjacent livery stable; the groom of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, was on his way to the West End to deliver some game; the clerk of Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, had gone to his dinner; and so Wilkins Flasher, Esquire, himself, cried, ‘Come in,’ when Mr. Pell and his companions knocked at the counting-house door.
Some hilarious commentary on Bath and Tradespeople:
‘The ball-nights in Ba-ath are moments snatched from
paradise; rendered bewitching by music, beauty, elegance, fashion, etiquette, and–and–above all, by the absence of tradespeople, who are quite inconsistent with paradise, and who have an amalgamation of themselves at the Guildhall every fortnight, which is, to say the least, remarkable. Good-bye, good-bye!’ and protesting all the way downstairs that he was most satisfied, and most delighted, and most overpowered, and most flattered, Angelo Cyrus Bantam, Esquire, M.C., stepped into a very elegant chariot that waited at the door, and rattled off.
On Bristol (finally Dickens tackles Bristol!):
Having inspected the docks and shipping, and viewed the cathedral, he inquired his way to Clifton, and being directed thither, took the route which was pointed out to him. But as the pavements of Bristol are not the widest or cleanest upon earth, so its streets are not altogether the straightest or least intricate; and Mr. Winkle, being greatly puzzled by their manifold windings and twistings, looked about him for a decent shop in which he could apply afresh for counsel and instruction.
Now, as promised, we come to Samuel Weller’s song about Dick Turpin:
Bold Turpin vunce, on Hounslow Heath,
His bold mare Bess bestrode-er;
Ven there he see’d the Bishop’s coach
A-coming along the road-er.
So he gallops close to the ‘orse’s legs,
And he claps his head vithin;
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
And the Bishop says, ‘Sure as eggs is eggs,
This here’s the bold Turpin!’
Says Turpin, ‘You shall eat your words,
With a sarse of leaden bul-let;’
So he puts a pistol to his mouth,
And he fires it down his gul-let.
The coachman he not likin’ the job,
Set off at full gal-lop,
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
But Dick put a couple of balls in his nob,
And perwailed on him to stop.
Thus we are brought to the end, and I quite loved the end because it eased my sadness at parting:
Mr. Pickwick, having said grace, pauses for an instant and looks round him. As he does so, the tears roll down his cheeks, in the fullness of his joy.
Let us leave our old friend in one of those moments of unmixed
happiness, of which, if we seek them, there are ever some, to cheer our transitory existence here. There are dark shadows on the earth, but its lights are stronger in the contrast. Some men, like bats or owls, have better eyes for the darkness than for the light. We, who have no such optical powers, are better pleased to take our last parting look at the visionary companions of many solitary hours, when the brief sunshine of the world is blazing full upon them. It is the fate of most men who mingle with the world, and attain even the prime of life, to make many real friends, and lose them in the course of nature. It is the fate of all authors or chroniclers to create imaginary friends, and lose them in the course of art. Nor is this the full extent of their misfortunes; for they are required to furnish an account of them besides.
I’m afraid it makes me terribly sentimental. I am saving all the grim debtor’s prison stuff for a much better, more forceful and fascinating post. But this is everything I loved most.
Hey ho, home early after a grand celebration, well, not so grand but good, very good, I’m quite happy at the moment…went out out to the Hamilton local, not the Bay Horse which is closer but rough, very rough, no, we walked all the way to ML3, it’s nice, quite nice. It was pouring down rain as we walked there, it came down in sheets across the street lights, lit up golden against the night sky and beautiful, and the wind blew mad against our backs and the trees sang above us and I was happy to be outside, happy to be walking, and I know it’s because I’m crazy, one day I’ll the man who finds that amazing even if I’m a stupid girl, and the world was beautiful and we sang nay, no, never, no never no more, will I be a wild rover…beautiful it was and we arrived in the torrent sopping wet, completely soaked, everyone stared at us and we laughed because life was in the process of being so well lived it was brilliant and I ran to the lady’s toilet and squeezed`the water from my hair so it wouldn’t keep running down my neck and soaking the top of my blouse and ran my fingers through it though fat lot of good it did, I just hoped for the best and figured that perhaps that fresh-out of the shower look was attractive to the occassional bystander because that’s exactly what I looked like, with the backs of my jean legs sopping and clinging lovingly to the backs of my calves and dripping to the floor…
A few drinks, some brilliant indy tunes with a bit of Pink Floyd thrown randomly in, I could have done with a strong dose of the Pogues but it was not to be and it didn’t matter, I don’t know why I’m so happy today but I am, happy. Life is brilliant…
Just communities. Just cities. Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.