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England and the English
By Ford Madox Ford, Sara Haslam
Carcanet Press LtdCopyright © 2003 Michael Schmidt
All rights reserved.
From a Distance
Thought of from sufficiently far, London offers to the mind's eye singularly little of a picture. It is essentially 'town', and yet how little of a town, how much of an abstraction. One says, 'He knows his London', yet how little more will he know of London than what is actually 'his'. And, if by chance he were an astronomer, how much better he might know his solar system.
It remains in the end always a matter of approaches. He has entered it – your man who knows his London – in one or other more or less strongly featured quarter; in his Bloomsbury of dismal, decorous, unhappy, glamorous squares; in his Camden Town of grimy box-like houses, yellow gas and perpetual ring of tram-horse hoofs; his eyes have opened to it in his Kensington, his Hoxton, his Mayfair or his Shoreditch. He has been born in it, or he has been drawn into it; he has gone through in it the slow awakening of a childhood. Or, coming an adolescent, his eyes have been opened more or less swiftly, with more or less of a wrench, to that small portion of it that is afterwards to form a 'jumping-off place' into that London that he will make 'his'.
And, with its 'atmosphere' whatever it is, with its 'character' whatever it may be, with the odd touches that go to make up familiarity and the home-feeling, the shape of its policemen's helmets, the cachet of its shop fronts, effects of light cast by street lamps on the fog, on house fronts, on front garden trees, on park railings, all these little things going towards its atmosphere and character, that jumping-off place will remain for him, as it were, a glass through which he will afterwards view, a standard by which he will afterwards measure, the London that yet remains no one's.
It makes in essentials little enough difference whether he be born in a London quarter, or whether he came, a young provincial, raw and ready to quiver at every sensation, super-sensitised to every emotion. If, as a London child, he has wandered much in the streets, there will remain to him always an odd sensation of being very little, of peering round the corners of grey and gigantic buildings upon greyer vistas of buildings more gigantic – so, with a half touch of awe, we scramble, as relatively little in maturity, round the base of an out-jutting cliff into what may prove a grey cove or what may be a great bay. It is the sense of making discoveries, of a world's opening-up.
In both, at the start, there will be the essential provincialism. The London child, with his unconscious acknowledgement of impersonal vistas, of infinite miles of unmeaning streets, of horizons that are the blur of lamps in fogs, simultaneously acknowledges personalities, local oddities, local celebrities of whom Shepherd's Bush, Highgate or Knightsbridge may be proud. For the provincial adolescent there will be the squire with his long beard and gouty walk, the mayor with his shop in the high street, the doctor with his face screwed up as if he were tasting the full bitterness of one of his own potions. The London child, however, will earlier overcome his awe of personalities. He will wonder at the man, sallow, tiny, wizened and skew-featured, who, with the whispered reputation of a miser able to roll himself in sovereigns, and a hazy identity in a child's mind with, say, Sweeny Todd the Demon Barber, sells him spring-pistols, catapult elastic and alley-taws in the dim and evil light of a small shop with windows obscured by broadsheets and penny dreadfuls. He will attach a certain significance to the grimy stretch of waste ground – it will by now have been, ah, so long since 'built over' – on which he played cricket with meat tins for a wicket, or fought a dismal battle with a big boy from 'another school'. But these local feelings sink very soon into the solid background of memories. He will discover other catapult sellers, he will find playing fields larger and more green, he will have it brought home to him that there are so many of every sort of thing in the world, just as, sooner or later, it will come home to him that there are so very many others of as little import in the scale of things as the catapult seller, the green fields, – and as himself.
For, sooner or later, the sense of the impersonality, of the abstraction that London is, will become one of the most intimate factors of his daily life. And sooner rather than later it will become one for the young provincial.
He will have had his preconceptions: he will have seen photographs of 'bits', of buildings, of bridges. He will have had his vague idea of a bulbous domed St Paul's with a queer fragment of Ludgate Hill, standing isolated at a corner of the Green Park; of Nelson's Column and the Monument, of the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace – all hazily united into one 'view' by a river Thames that is hazily suggested, green and leafy, by his own Severn, his own Stour, his own Ouse, or Adur. But this picture will vanish finally and irrecoverably, like our own preconceived notions of an individual we have long thought of, whom we meet at last to find so entirely – and so very obviously – different.
The emotions of his journey to town – and they are emotions from within so much more than impressions from without – will last him until he is settled, more or less, for good in his lodgings, his cellar or his boarding house. They will last him, at least until his things are unpacked, his credentials presented, his place found – or until he finds, after how many disillusionments, that he may never in all probability find any place at all. The point is that, till then, he will not have any time to 'look about him'.
BUT the last thing that, even then, he will get is any picture, any impression of London as a whole, any idea to carry about with him – of a city, in a plain, dominated by a great building, bounded by a horizon, brought into composition by mists, great shadows, great clouds or a bright and stippled foreground. It is trite enough to say that the dominant note of his first impression will be that of his own alone-ness. It is none the less the dominant note of London; because, unless he is actually alone he will pay no attention to London itself. He will talk with his companions of his or their own affairs; he will retain the personal note, shutting out the impersonal, stalling it off instinctively.
But our young provincial being for his first time cast absolutely loose will get then his first impression of London – his first tap of the hammer. He will stand perhaps at a street corner, perhaps at his own doorstep, for a moment at a loss what to do, where to go, where to turn. He will not ever have been so alone. If he were intent upon getting a complete picture of London he might be – we might imagine him – setting out self-consciously, his eyes closed during the transit, to climb the heights of Hampstead, the top of the Monument, the Dome of St Paul's. But he will not.
London, with its sense of immensity that we must hurry through to keep unceasing appointments, with its diffuseness, its gatherings up into innumerable trade-centres, innumerable class districts, becomes by its immensity a place upon which there is no beginning. It is, so to speak, a ragoût of tit-bits so appealing and so innumerable – of Gower's tombs and Botticelli's, of miles of port-wine cellars or of the waxen effigies of distinguished murderers – that your actual born-not-made Londoner passes the whole dish by. He is like the good Scot whose haggis is only eaten by conscientious tourists; like the good North German whose alt-bier soup appears at table only for the discomfiture of the English or American cousin. He will not visit his Tower today because there will always remain an eternity in which to see it; he will not, tomorrow, ensue at the Millbank National Gallery a severe headache, because that Gallery will always be there.
Our young provincial, in fact, until he has finished, as a separate entity, his sightseeing, does not become even a potential Londoner. He has to exhaust that as he will have to exhaust the personalities, the localities, that for the time being will make up his 'world'. He must have had squeezed swiftly into him all the impressions that the London child has slowly made his own. He must have asked all the ways that are to carry him to and from his daily work; he must be able to find instinctively his own front-door, his own keyhole, his own string that in a noisome cellar pulls the latch, or his own bundle of rags in the corner of a railway arch. Daily details will have merged, as it were, into his bodily functions, and will have ceased to distract his attention. He will have got over the habit of relying, in these things, upon personal contacts. He will have acquired an alertness of eye that will save him from asking his way. On his 'Underground' he will glance at a board rather than inquire of a porter; on 'bus-routes he will catch instinctively, on the advancing and shapeless mass of colour and trade announcements, the small names of taverns, of Crosses, of what were once outlying hamlets; he will have in his mind a rough sketch map of that plot of London that by right of living in he will make his own. Then he will be the Londoner, and to the measure of the light vouchsafed will know his London. Yet, to the great majority of Londoners whose residence is not an arrière boutique London will remain a matter of a central highway, a central tunnel or a central conduit, more or less long; a daily route whose two extremities are a more or less permanent sleeping place, and a more or less permanent workshop – a thing, figured on a map, like the bolas of certain South Americans, a long cord with balls at the extremities. At the one there will gradually congregate the parts of a home, at the other, the more or less familiar, more or less hypnotising, more or less congenial, surroundings of his daily work. It will be a matter of a daily life passing unnoticed.
LONDON itself will become the merest abstraction. He will not moralise upon London. Occasionally a periodical will inform him with notes of exclamation, that London is a very remarkable thing. He will read, 'London more than all else in the scenery of England gives food for thought; this for awe and wonder, not for boasting, is unique' – and he will acquiesce. Nevertheless awe and wonder are the last things he will feel.
London, in fact, is so essentially a background, a matter so much more of masses than of individuals, so much more, as it were, a very immense symphony orchestra than a quartette party with any leader not negligible, that its essential harmony is not to be caught by any human ear. It can only be treated as a ground bass, a drone, on top of which one pipes one's own small individual melody. A human aggregation, it leaves discernible so very little of the human that it is almost as essentially a natural product as any great stretch of alluvial soil. Your marshy delta was brought down in the course of a thousand years or so. Raindrops, born a long way up in the hills, united to run through fissures in the earth, through soil-drains, through runnels in the moss of woods, through channels in the clay of sodden fields, each drop bearing infinitesimal grains of what, towards the sea at the end, becomes alluvial soil – each drop quarried, each drop carried, each drop endured for its moment, and then went hence and was no more seen. It left the grain of loam it had carried. So precisely out of the clouds of the nations, drops have been born. It is that oblivion, that 'being no more seen', that is, in matters human, the note of London. It never misses, it never can miss anyone. It loves nobody, it needs nobody; it tolerates all the types of mankind. It has palaces for the great of the earth, it has crannies for all the earth's vermin. Palace and cranny, vacated for a moment, find new tenants as equably as the hole one makes in a stream – for, as a critic, London is wonderfully open-minded.
On successive days it will welcome its king going to be crowned, its general who has given it a province, its enemies who have fought against it for years, its potentate guest from Teheran – it will welcome each with identically rapturous cheers. This is not so much because of a fickle-mindedness as because since it is so vast it has audiences for all players. It forgets very soon, because it knows so well that, in the scale of things, any human achievement bulks very small.
It cherishes less than any other town the memory of its mighty dead. Its message for humanity is that it is the business of man to keep all on going, not to climb on to pinnacles. Its street names are those of ground-landlords; its commemorative tablets, on house fronts, are no more to be read than any epitaphs in any churchyards. It is one gigantic pantheon of the dead level of democracy; and, in its essentials it is a home neither for the living nor the dead.
If in its tolerance it finds a place for all eccentricities of physiognomy, of costume, of cult, it does so because it crushes out and floods over the significance of those eccentricities. It, as it were, lifts an eyelid and turns a hair neither for the blue silk gown of an Asiatic, the white robes of a Moor, the kilts of a Highlander, nor the silk hat, inscribed in gold letters with a prophecy of retribution or salvation, of a religious enthusiast. In its innumerable passages and crannies it swallows up Mormon and Mussulman, Benedictine and Agapemonite, Jew and Malay, Russian and Neapolitan. It assimilates and slowly digests them, converting them, with the most potent of all juices, into the singular and inevitable product that is the Londoner – that is, in fact, the Modern. Its spirit, extraordinary and unfathomable – because it is given to no man to understand the spirit of his own age – spreads, like sepia in water, a tinge of its own over all the world. Its extraordinary and miasmic dialect – the dialect of South Essex – is tinging all the local speeches of England. Deep in the New Forest you will find red brick houses trying to look like London villas; deep in the swamps of coastal Africa you will find lay white men trying to remain Londoners, and religious white men trying to turn negroes into suburban chapel worshippers.
London is the world town, not because of its vastness; it is vast because of its assimilative powers, because it destroys all race characteristics, insensibly and, as it were, anaesthetically. A Polish Jew changes into an English Hebrew and then into a Londoner without any legislative enactments, without knowing anything about it. You may watch, say, a Berlin Junker, arrogant, provincial, unlicked, unbearable to any other German, execrable to anyone not a German, turning after a year or two into a presentable and only just not typical Londoner; subdued, quiet in the matters of collars, ties, coat, voice and backbone, and naturally extracting a 'sir' from a policeman. London will do all this imperceptibly. And, in externals, that is the high-water mark of achievement of the Modern Spirit.
IMMENSE without being immediately impressive, tolerant without any permanent preferences, attracting unceasingly specimens of the best of all earthly things without being susceptible of any perceptible improvement, London, perhaps because of its utter lack of unity, of plan, of the art of feeling, is the final expression of the Present Stage. It owes its being to no one race, to no two, to no three. It is, as it were, the meeting place of all Occidentals and of such of the Easterns as can come, however remotely, into touch with the Western spirit. Essentially unmusical, in it may be found, as it were 'on show', the best of all music. And it has at odd moments 'on show' the best products of the cook, of the painter, of the flower-gardener, of the engineer, of the religious and of the scientists. It does without any architecture, because in essentials it is an assembly of tents beside a river, a perennial Nijni Novgorod bazaar, a permanent world's fair. It is a place in which one exists in order to gain the means of living out of it; an epitome, an abstract of the Christian's world, which he inhabits only to prepare himself for one more bright if less glamorous. Perhaps, for times to come, some individual of today, striking the imagination of posterity, may catch and preserve an entirely individual representation of the London of today. We have our individual presentations of so many vanished Londons. We have the town of a riverside, with steep, serrated warehouselike wharf-dwellings, dominated by a great Gothic cathedral. Through its streets wind improbably gigantic processions of impossibly large mediaeval horsemen. We have a Tudor London merging into the early Jacobean of the dramatists – a small, provincial-minded, crooked-streeted, gabled town, walled, circumscribed, still set in fields whose hedges public-minded citizens of the train-bands delighted to break down. We have the two Londons of the diarists – a London still of crooked streets, of a Gothic cathedral, with an essential stench, a glow of torches round house-ends with red crosses on low doors, a rumble of plague-carts. Then a London rising out of ashes, with streets, heaven knows, crooked enough, but having lost its cathedral and its gabled houses. So, perhaps, for the London of our day.
Some Clerk of the Admiralty is, without doubt, keeping, like Pepys, his diary; some journalist, like Defoe, is writing fraudulent memoirs; some caricaturist now before us, some novelist too much or too little advertised today, will succeed in persuading posterity that his London is the London that we live in but assuredly don't know.
Excerpted from England and the English by Ford Madox Ford, Sara Haslam. Copyright © 2003 Michael Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Carcanet Press Ltd.
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