06 March, 2009

Periegesis Londinii

So far this year I have been writing less, and reading less; and walking more. Already I have undertaken fourteen London walks, a full stretch every Sunday, and recently a little extra during the week, between academic pursuits. But I dream of walking as an art, or at least as a craft. So far I remain at the propaedeutic level, setting myself exercises, finding my way around the city, as I would around a canvas, or an essay. Of course, London has already been walked so much—Iain Sinclair and Patrick Wright, both of whom spoke at the LSE last weekend, are two of London's more distinguished flâneurs. And so when I walk I cannot merely walk; I must walk as Conrad, I must find my own way to walk, my own reasons to walk. This will take time, but even now I have managed a few quirks and motifs: the eye out for datestones, the prosifying ear, and the determination to walk until it grows dark, until the lampadaires spring into light, and then no more.

I am drawn to places where I do not belong; to the feeling of not belonging. It is fortunate, then, that I am in London, for the city makes ample provision for such an emotion. I wander onto an estate, and try to look as if I'm actually headed for somewhere in particular, for the locals, like the filth, little appreciate idle explorers, especially when they are waving cameras, and will take any opportunity to peer at me suspiciously, as if I were a nonce, a detective, or simply a dreaded bourgeois. Even a twee old version of the council estate, Waterlow Court, warns non-residents away. When I trespass regardless, making a leisurely circuit of the court's fine cloisters, I am tickled with a frisson of lawlessness: a little, as they say, goes a long way.

London's signages, for one thing, are ominously rebarbative. Where Agar Grove crosses the railway lines, a note on a lamppost barks, PROSTITUTES BEWARE. YOU ARE BEING WATCH BY OVERT CCTV. How much more overt could CCTV be? The bluntness of 'prostitutes' is mysteriously shocking. Couldn't they have been more euphemistic? The inépatable Londoner recoils instinctively, shewing his true, Times-reading nature. On Widdenham Road, N7, the porches of the terraced mansion blocks admonish, NO HAWKERS OR CANVASSERS. And on Leighton Road, Kentish Town, the old Victorian post-office offers a little found-poetry, in weathered bronze inscription-capitals:

NOTICE

H. M. POSTMASTER GENERAL
THE OWNER OF THE LAND
AND FORECOURT
IN FRONT OF THESE PREMISES
HAS NOT DEDICATED AND
DOES NOT INTEND TO
DEDICATE AS A HIGHWAY
THE SAID LAND AND FORECOURT
OR ANY PART THEREOF
OR ANY WAY THEREUPON
OR THEREOVER

I particularly love those last lines: 'or any part thereof, or any way thereupon, or thereover'. This is, as I have come to appreciate lately, a Beckettian prose. It represents the defining feature of his early sentences, reaching climax in Watt, but most lapidary in Murphy:
Some [patients] were at matins, some in the gardens, some could not get up, some would not, some simply had not.

The anger that gave him the energy to begin again was gone before he had half ended. A few words used it up. So it had always been, not only with anger, not only with words.
That last sentence actually brought joyful tears to my eyes when I re-read Murphy last month. It is an authoritarian prose: it cannot simply give, but must delineate exactly, permuting words within the syntax. It is a Platonic or scholastic prose: it always pushes away from the concrete ('A few words used it up. So it had always been—') towards abstraction ('—not only with anger, not only with words'). The commas, especially that between anger and not, unlike traditional prose commas, separate grammatically-distinct clauses: in other words they are rhetorical, and indicate the movement of a mind as it considers the broader consequences of a particular. Each thought is pushed, to see what will happen. The music, the rhythm of ideas, is perfect.

So it is, in miniature, with the bronze tricolon of 'or any part thereof, or any way thereupon, or thereover'.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is this, by the Chelsea river, far away from the monotonous suburbs of North London, and closer to those streets of heavy, columned porches, far more monotonous, which I am apparently the first to designate Stuccovia:


The notice states, 'This park is open from 7.30am until dusk every day.' Assuredly, this syntax is a plain one, with neither the ingrammatic rudeness of Agar Grove, nor the baroque repetition of Leighton Road. But the surrealism of the scene, deadpan, is pure Alice, or Monty Python. In the latter case, the sign would be played by Idle or Palin, the walker by an irascible Cleese. What d'you bleedin' mean, open from 7.30 to dusk? How d'you propose to shut it, then? Both Alice and Python capture the absurdity of British authority, of the voice that declares a patch of grass 'open' only at certain times of the day. I would not have it otherwise. Let the city say Keep out, Hop it, Piss off, Your kind not wanted here, and say it in a thousand different voices, not only with anger, not only with words. Let it say Begone, and I will be all the happier to stay.

7 comments:

A.J.P. Crown said...

Hawker is my last name, so I have vandalised No Hawkers signs all my life. I wonder if there are any Stanley Hawkers? In Norway there are street signs with No Stans Permitted, 'stans' being standing cars.

John Cowan said...

The meaning of the sign in the park, or at least of similar signs in the parks of New York City, is that if you are found within the park after the stated hour, you may be summonsed by the police for trespass, as the lawyers say, quare clausum fregit; you have broken the close, which need not be a physical wall around the property in question but can be entirely metaphysical as in this case.

My daughter found this out the hard way, but because she and her friend did move on after properly receiving their tickets, they were able to claim in court that they had not seen the sign, and thus we see that while ignorance of the law excuseth no man ('tis an excuse every man will plead, and no man can tell how to confute him), it may on such occasions as this excuse a couple of young women.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Arthur: A quick google reveals only one Stanley Hawker, an Australian pilot, now dead. But perhaps you should get together a little duo with a Mr Canvasser?

John: Yes, this is clearly the case here too---still, the absurdity of it should not be underestimated, especially when the 'park' is only a few metres square in size.

chris miller said...

Only a few metres square in size?

Just enough space on which to take a nap. (why not just add the word "Homeless" to the list of prohibited visitors?)

BTW -- I like your strolls -- and the more pictures you take, the better.

A.J.P. Crown said...

He can't read your comment, he's out strolling.

Lisa said...

Dear Mr. Roth,

While I’m usually too reticent to (even) think about “commenting” on your articles this one so reminded me of my favorite book of all times and thus you (by apophenia’s odd extensions) of its rollicking lawbreaker that I had to risk a reply. I imagine once the deed's done, I’ll wish I hadn't. Oh well, here goes nothing: this bit’s far and away the best of your bunch; any person can mosey into this piece and make it their own. I dare say, your posts aren’t all as amenable to my limited wits, however much I find them a joy to read. If I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, I still appreciate your highbrow panache; I just thank heaven for the miracle of Google and try like hell to muddle through the more difficult ones as best I can. So, for the sake of the intellectually impaired, might I cajole you into penning another piece of the same order?

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Chris, and my apologies for not replying sooner.

Lisa: I hope you do not regret having commented, now. Thank you for your thoughtful compliment; it is most gratifying. I try to intersperse lighter and more arcane subjects, and although I really must post something new now, I'm still not really sure what it must be!