Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Writing about thinking about writing about London in India and back then too (part 3)

Typical: No soon as people finally begin to heed the drought warnings then the clouds burst and it refuses to stop raining. The city is spared the worst of the weather by a long way, but still takes on a sodden fug. My woollen great coat gains a weight that bears down on my shoulders. All that water is not enough, for it merely splashes down on the brittle dry surfaces and washes away down the hillside leaving the same problem in its wake.

The trouble with trying to write a history of London in such a concise format as a blog ostensibly about something else is I’m forced to concentrate on a few specifics. Everything and everyone I miss out automatically take on a greater importance in my head than they had before I started. I find myself restricted to the grand sweep of history, the big concepts and personalities with which the reader already has a passing familiarity with. It is impossible to get truly underneath the surface, to explore the difference and keep the city alive.

Dickens recognised that it is the people which make the city, any city, unique. That’s why the best bits of his writing aren’t the moralising over the child labour or the indignation at the debtors prison and it certainly isn’t his plodding plotting or his inability to ever craft a satisfying ending as though he couldn’t actually bear to let go of his creations, but it is the deliciousness with which he speedily cuts his characters. My favourite is the man drinking in a bar running up a tab and when his friend questions his ability to pay he simply explains that he will not be able to pass by the establishment again. He then proceeds to real off an extensive list of other streets he can’t pass down for fear of encountering those who he owes, navigating a complex map of nooks and alleys swerving around the areas blocked off, occasionally sealing off whole areas, all carried inside his head. It’s a funny, believable well crafted character sketch as anecdote which tells more than it initially suggests.

Or at least I think it is my favourite Dickens’ piece. Only now I come to check I can’t remember where I read that particular vignette. So maybe I’m inserting a fiction within a fictional observation of true human nature, which makes it what? I don’t know.

Helpfully, this lack of memory sums up my failure to write this whole series. I’ve tried to capture too much in too few words and come up short. The scope is just too big to hold it all in my brain at once.

London is big monuments and crazy bars and rejuvenated streets which are the same as they’ve been for centuries. It has the triple headed beast of money, God and power stalking through her streets and the murky afterlife that is the Thames, but more than any of that it has Londoners, each with their own mystery. It is the white coated meat packers filling out the stout bars around Smithfields at seven o’clock in the morning and the unpredictability of those who sneak in with them. It’s the trendily bearded and be-glassed kids playing acoustic guitar on the local college steps in the morning sunshine. It’s the woman with only one eye waiting at the bus stop with tears on her cheek. The guy in the flat cap who smokes roll ups and drinks cans of Stella every evening between six and seven, no matter the weather, on the bench at the railway bridge. The young men passing a joint between them as they hover outside the vinyl shop opposite the Spanish bar. The city worker and the manual labourer sitting next to each other on the tube each mutually exhausted, the heads tilted towards each other, sharing the burden. It’s detail and it’s generalisation. It’s glancing down the railway arch filled alley and seeing sex pop kittens in a photo shoot, all knee high boots and tiny leather pants shimmering under the fluorescent white of the photographer’s light and then fifteen metres further along, on the other side of the railway line a distorted mirror image of the grey faced old too young woman with the pinkish stain down her hoodie who clutches her withered biceps where her veins itch and whispers some offer which can’t truly be heard. It’s the salt beef bagels on Brick Lane served out of Victorian-French-German terraced housing, culture shift overlaying culture shift. It’s the colour the smell and self-aware stereotype barking of the flower market. It’s the local community treasure hunts still going ahead despite the rain. It’s the way the Regents Canal shifts its sort of pretty as it runs west to east and back again. It’s the morning sun glistening off the incomplete tower block which overshadows the multi-lane intersection, the silence of the late night double-decker or the sudden shift from crowded to empty, from commerce to something akin to the seaside that the new docklands go through every weekend.

I could write about all of that, but actually Craig Taylor just did it better and besides I am out of time. It’s such a shame that Boris and Ken seem to only think it’s about them. They’re just missing the point and maybe that’s why I’m finding it so hard to care.

I got lost recently. Twice, in fact. This rarely happens anymore, especially when I’m not deliberately meandering around and trying to disorientate myself. It wasn’t even in a vague not being entirely sure what road I was on, but in an absolutely no idea where I am way. Twice. Once on the bike on the way to work and once on the way back from seeing Stuart Noah play guitar in Clerkenwell. I know these streets, but then, suddenly, I didn’t. It was as though, even if I’m not tired of London, it has had enough of me.

I got off the bike and back on the train with the rain. I get to immerse myself in books again, but for some reason I struggle to concentrate. I feel guilty about not cycling. I go to bed too late and outside it is raining so hard that when the water slops down between the slats of scaffolding round the back of the house and thwacks down on the concrete step it sounds like drama in the dead of the night.

Dickens, like me, would wander the city streets for inspiration. On one of his nightly journeys he found himself at Bedlam, the asylum. He was allowed to enter the hospital, presumably due to the fact he was arguably the most famous man in the Empire at the time, and there he watched how the patients’ behaviour changed with the rising of the moon. He claimed they were sedate and normal if somewhat dull witted by day, but at night they released themselves into the unconscious and let their particular fantasy world take hold. Dickens thought they were living waking dreams, as though we are all our true selves when asleep, but the mad bring those dreams to life and therefore embrace who they really are.

I feel angry with my childish response to writer’s block, to missing being on holiday, to simply missing. After a while I decide to pack Harry Noble back into his novel for the time being. I don’t need him in order to face myself anymore.

During the war, after the fall of Singapore, my Grandpa found himself stationed with the RAF bombing crews flying out of Jodphur and over Japanese held territory. The Maharaja was made an honorary commodore and consequently cared for his comrades, especially at Christmas. I have a card he sent offering seasonal greetings to the whole squadron. It shows a photo of the fort high above on the precipice of a mountain ridge, the sort that juts sharply vertical out of the plain, plateaus out and then drops back down again with the rest of the town gathering at the base like the hem of a clustered skirt.

Even with all our cultural expectations of India from novels and films and documentaries we were still amazed at how utterly different it is. Major cities don’t follow any of the European rules of structure, being instead precariously bound together by a cacophony of alleys, cows, Tuk-Tuk mechanised rickshaws, insistent horn blaring and endless chatter. If it seemed alien to reasonably well travelled thirty odd year olds in the twenty-first century I wonder what a Belfast boy, barely twenty, seventy years ago would have made of it all.

I look at the black and white photograph on the Christmas card. I appear to have taken the exact same photograph, only in colour. It shows the red-yellow hued dust of the fortifications and the shimmering blues of the houses below, painted so to ward off disease. I wish I could have shown him this picture.

Sometimes it’s okay to have a blank page.

I look up from my desk. The Sunday afternoon air is quiet and the pooling water glimmers on the terrace. The sun is shining after all.