01 February, 2009

London Belongs To—

(In homage to, via intermittent pastiche of, the long defunct, and the funct, too.)

Woken by a saleswoman of uncertain ethnicity; voice sounds like a machine, Stephen Hawking. Five minutes go by before she tries to sell me something; I hang up. Band-aid has fallen off my thumb in the night, leaving the dried wound. Breadknife accident, after several beers; a flap of skin cut obliquely, in the shape of Osiris' crook, presaging death, gashed thumb as macabre totem of a journey curving back on itself. Today I will cut a gash of my own onto the London map, inscribe a V in footsteps through the city streets, from King's Cross to the Barbican, and up to Stamford Hill. It is lightly snowing as I leave, a scurrilous fag ash at best; no suitable hat; briefly wonder if I should turn back and ascend the stair (with a bald spot in the middle of my hair). But no; I shall not let myself be ruled by the vagaries of season. London belongs to me, among others. Noon.

Euston Road
Gray's Inn Road
Britannia Street
King's Cross Road

Bagnigge House plaque, well-noted by latterday Fleet River pilgrims. Someone, no doubt Thatcher, has thoughtlessly sited a bus shelter immediately in front, obscuring the view. Travelodge, murderer of London roads.

Lloyd Baker Street
Amwell Street
Rosoman Street
Exmouth Market
Pine Street
Catherine Griffiths Court
Northampton Road

Came to see Lubetkin's Health Centre, now that my attention has been adverted to it. Who would ever even notice it? Not as arresting as the sleek, monochrome photographs make it look. More noteworthy is the Michael Palin Centre for Stammering, which seems to operate under the Health Centre's general auspices, and whose name suggests a Python sketch that never was. Not that Palin has or has ever had a stammer; just that he once played a character with one. Slip round the back, into a bit of greenery, and then through a muset in the hedge, into a gated-off area, trying to get some sense of Lubetkin's derrière, but no luck.

Bowling Green Lane

A little swarm of coppers bombinating from two cars, lights flashing, outside the closed and oversize gates of CZWG Architects, housed in an old 1872 warehouse, dirty yellow brick banded with red, replete with free-floating terracotta tympana, and pulley equipment in period red iron. One of them crouches down to look under the gates; sees nothing; the coppers mutter discontentedly to each other and then disappear into their vehicles, the whole a shamanistic exorcism of deserted weekend Clerkenwell, come to nought.

Farringdon Road
Farringdon Lane
Clerkenwell Green
Aylesbury Street
St John Street
Clerkenwell Road
Old Street
Golden Lane
Golden Lane Estate

By this stage the sun has emerged, appropriately, and the old estate, with its saffron and primrose highlights, beams munificently from above. Sudden view into an apartment, with a bright and impressive roomful of books. Mother and daughter in the indoor pool below. Stains on one wall coalesce into a Leonardo phantasmagoria, faces of an older and more ancient London appearing again to haunt the estate's designer tenants.

"The buildings themselves—a very high density housing estate for the City of London—are sometimes fussy and sometimes weather-beaten. But in a way they are unimportant compared with the spaces between them. Every trick in the book is brought in, and not for cleverness's sake, but to create a real place out of statistical units of accommodation. There are half a dozen ways of crossing the site: along corridors, under buildings, down steps and up ramps. And it is all meant to be used." — Ian Nairn, London.

Fann Street
Fortune Street Gardens

"Scuse me mate, can I ask you a civil question?" Old fellow, beard, well wrapped-up, bright eyes. "Er, yes, go on." "Now, I'm not beggin, I'm not a mugger, I'm not a terrorist, I just wanted to ask you, since I'm sleeping rough these days, if you might happen to have any small change on you." So you. . . are begging? "I'm sorry, I haven't got any change." It's the truth, this time. "Ah well, God bless you son." Sun still out.

Errol Street
Dufferin Court
Bunhill Fields

Defoe's big prick. IT REPRESENTS THE UNITED CONTRIBUTIONS OF SEVENTEEN HUNDRED PERSONS. Blake. Bunyan. "Please nominate this park for a £200k grant," or something to that effect. Let it be derelict and overgrown, I say; let our literary heroes be hidden under creeping weeds, unearthable by dérive-ing Sinclairian enthusiasts. Though they probably won't bother with Defoe or Bunyan; what could these dissenters say to tomorrow's visionaries? A Hoxtonite with a big camera, up on the bench, gets a long view of all the graves.

City Road

One of those transitions of which Nairn is so fond, from the bumbling tombs of Bunhill, and before them the back streets of Peabody Estates, onto City Road, with its distant edging of the City's glass and steel. Brief flick round the Wesleyan Chapel, where I have arrived in the nick of time, as the minister, who appears with a spectral suddenness, tells me the Chapel is closing in fifteen minutes. It is a relief to be out of the terrible cold, at least. The interior is pleasant enough, and its ornamental ceilings are especially fine. Traditional old-timey stained glass in the narthex, facing out into the courtyard, flanked by two windows, modern, painted rather than stained, with a sinister, end-of-days feel, as if a new-century channelling of the old Methodist spirit.

The ship or ark, from which huddled masses stream (via parted waters) towards the foreground, reads -OGOS on the keel, which I take to be LOGOS. To the right, an old fellow fructifies the wanderers with a living river, and a kindly gent in spectacles toys with a branch. To the left, the cyclist's messenger-bag reads JESSEE COURIER, and at the rear of the ice-cream van is Angelos. The council-estate mum buying a coke from the ice-cream man has a child in tow, who is holding a palm-leaf. Rich with pregnant images, the cartoon on the glass is trying to tell us something. Back out into the cold, neither snow nor sun.

Cowper Street
Tabernacle Street
Pitfield Street
Old Street
Kingsland Road

I come across at least two hat shops, and consider making a purchase, since my head and ears are now burning. Endless onslaught of pretty girls, Hoxtonites, in outlandish fashions, even pencil-markings on their faces. I peer at the menu of every Vietnamese restaurant I pass, looking for soft-shell crab. An acquaintance informed me of this delicacy last week, and said this was the place to get it; now I am gagging to try it. But this is not the time. I don't want to sit down just for a single dish, nor to eat alone.

Kingsland Road
Geffrye Court
Kingsland Road
Dunston Road

Over the canal; I decide to call in on Butterfingers, who lives in a warehouse with a bunch of gangly artists. Brilled hair, cream jumper, scuffed brown chelsea boots with pointy brogue toes. Stopping by unannounced, or in this case almost so, is a rare opportunity in this diffuse metropolis, and so I take a peculiar pleasure from it, a perfect half-hour caesura from the march. When I arrive he is cooking up a lovely rösti and fried eggs. Orange juice. Haven't eaten all morning, so it goes down a treat. The great communal room is littered with eccentric bits of furniture and half-realised artworks and statements. One of the gang thinks Federer won the tennis, which gives me cheer. The fag-ash blizzard has begun outside again, but this time we can see the sun still shining as a gangrenous spot through the grey, an image of faint triumph. I ask if I can borrow a hat. He rummages around, but turns up nothing. "It's alright," I say, "I've come this far and I can keep going without one."

Kingsland Road
Kingsland High Street
Stoke Newington Road
Stoke Newington High Street
Stamford Hill
Lynmouth Road

After an evening spent reciting and discussing poetry, mine and others', it is still snowing in Stoke Newington. He walks me to the bus-stop, past the marvelous Egyptian entrance to Abney Park, and I reminisce with him of my walk in the San Francisco downpour. The flakes are thickly glazing our coats, and now coat the streets, deliciously. The 67 takes forever to come, but it's fine, we are good to talk for as long as it may be.

When I get back home, Aubrey is mewing with a pitiful vengeance, and he must have freshly laid, for the flat is saturated with an aroma of dung. The thumb is healing nicely; the pale white skin reattaching itself to the trunk, an almost alchemical process. Osiris' regenerative crook has been vindicated; life to death, and death back to life. London itself, with its range and sweep of light, textures, is itself an alchemical, regenerative city; never mere existence. Three in the morning, and the snow is still falling, still settling. Glowing in the dark. This must be the grandest city in all the world.

[Update: Monday. The newspapers are right: snow is general all over England. My soul swoons slowly as I hear the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. I have the sensation of having walked London for the last time, before it is engulfed in the blizzard


John Cowan said...

Ulysses transposed to the key of London.

Anonymous said...

I'm delighted to see you making use of my Christmas present; I thought it might appeal.

Most of London seems to have decided to take the day off today; the streets are wonderfully quiet, and even in the Euston Road there is very little traffic. Our Reading Rooms are closed, so we are not bothered by all those pesky readers.

Conrad H. Roth said...

John: Well, thank you very much.

Arnold: Yes, it is paying dividends all the time, thanks again for it. I should like to have seen Euston Road without traffic, something almost unimaginable. But at least I feel better for not having bothered into the library: I would have been quite irate to arrive at locked doors!

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

My very dear Mr. Roth,

The Wesleyan painted windows are quite remarkable. As a Louisiana girl, I am still filled with a wide-eyed wonderment when I see the lovely snow. (Despite the years of Chicago winters).

Hopefully, the snow will keep falling and we may continue to frolic amidst the flurries.

Mrs. Lily Roth

Andrew W. said...

As always, Conrad, your writing...

It must be quite something to see London deep in snow...having never seen London at all, I can only imagine, although your words go a long way to making it alive in the mind's eye.

We have had a record snowfall here, I believe. If only we shut down...but widgets must be made, and we are a Nordic people, so we salt the sidewalks and carry on!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks, Andrew.

AJS said...

A far prettier journey than that of the infamous, silent bagel.

John Emerson said...

I hate that part about snow at the end of The Dead. To begin with, I don't feel that way about snow, so for me the symbolism utterly fails. And given that, I ended up completely doubting realistic symbolism / symbolic realism. It was as if someone for whom onions were loathsome climaxed a story with lots of horrible onions, or as if he stuck in a Coca-Cola ad or a public health notice.

And I like the story and the writing otherwise.

Going further on a snow theme, I just love seeing bare trees in winter. The patterns in the branches are more visible, etc., etc. And you can also think, "Right now this tree is bare and looks completely dead, But it will be flourishing in a few months, and it's older than I am and will almost certainly survive me".

And thatt's a comfort, even though it doesn't rationally seem that it should be.