Monday 9 March 2015

'Nature and human nature and their privacies': Pritchett's London

I've been reading (rereading technically, but that was long ago) a short book by V.S. Pritchett, apparently written for the American market - London Perceived. It was published in 1962 and describes, with affection, erudition and sharp insight, a London that I remember clearly from my boyhood and that is now largely gone, one with Nineveh and Tyre. Pritchett seems aware as he writes that this London is a city poised on the cusp of a great transformation. His chapter on the river describes beautifully the miles and miles of docks and wharves (23 miles on either bank) that then lined the Thames, but acknowledges that, under threat as they are from other forms of freight transport, they are unlikely to last many more decades. Romantically he envisages a future Thames lined with miles of riverside pleasure gardens, not the endless deserts of ugly gimcrack housing and monstrous office blocks that have replaced most of dockland.
 Pritchett approvingly quotes Henry James's conclusion that 'London is on the whole the most possible form of life'. For Pritchett, London is the most liveable of cities because 'so much has been left to Nature and human nature and their privacies' - privacy and reserve being among the essential characteristics of the Londoner (then), along with an amused, patronising tolerance of foreigners and a habit of forming institutions and associations of all kinds, despite each Londoner being essentially a recalcitrant individualist. The calm of the London face strikes Pritchett: 'It reposes on its worry like a turnip on imperfect soil, and positively fattens on self-control. Of all the great cities I have known, London is the least on edge...' Ah, how long ago it seems.
 And so it was. This was a London of bomb sites, where the memory of the war and the blitz were fresh. Some of the best writing in the book relates to wartime London (Pritchett was a fire-watcher). He recalls an August afternoon when a fine green snow fell in Holborn - a bomb in Hyde Park had pulverised the leaves of the trees to these strange smithereens. And here he talks about the eerie silence of the early evenings of wartime:
'One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one's own heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln's Inn Fields... They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course, One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.'
 When Pritchett writes about the Tower of London, his vision is coloured by wartime and continuing horrors: 'We are now closer to the Middle Ages than the Victorians were. These picturesque lumps bristle and wake up. In what way does the medieval ethos now differ from that of Europe or, indeed, the greater part of the world? The Tower means murder now, torture now, stranglings, treacheries, massacre, the solitary cell, the kick of the policeman's boot... The Tower, grey and nasty, is awake again, and the dirty water of the Thames lapping under Traitor's Gate, where they rowed the fellows in, looks sly and has the light of a conniving modern eye.'
 This is not a sentimental or picturesque view of London, though Pritchett clearly loves the city. It is London perceived with heart and mind and eye, and to bring out the essence of the place Pritchett roams at large in its history and in the lives and writings of great Londoners, from Pepys to Dickens, by way of Defoe, Hogarth and Johnson, among many others who make brief appearances or are quoted in Pritchett's pages. It's a richly enjoyable book - even if one's pleasure is tinged with sadness at the loss of so much of what once constituted the special character of London.
 One final quotation. Here's Pritchett on the subject of London brick:
'The browns, blacks, reds and ochres, the varieties of grey, in a London brick wall change with the weather, the light, the time of day, and are as tender as plumage... what to the impatient or dramatic eye appears to be blank and without distinction is to the active and curious eye rich in texture, sensuous, and warm.' As tender as plumage... Pritchett, to be sure, never lost his endlessly active and curious eye.

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