Thursday, September 29, 2011

London Part I: Roads and Eliot

My first impression of London came from reading T.S. Eliot’s poem, “Preludes”, with an image of old 
newspapers tossed around by the wind, train stations with its faceless people, large clocks, deep grey skies, and damp, cold air.  
Here’s an example:
Preludes (Part IV): T.S. Eliot
His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock;
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

(Part IV added in 1911)

Here’s a few sections from The Four Quartets, written over two decades later, that I think link to Preludes very well:

Burnt Norton, Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

(published sometime around 1936)

(note: Burnt Norton begins with two epigraphs from Heraclitus, the second being, “The way upward and the way downward is one and the same.”)

And of course, some of my favorite lines in the poem from Part V, Little Gidding, The Four Quartets (written in 1942)

The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter's afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and

I always thought the whole philosophical idea of The Four Quartets is finding the eternal – the stillness – in a moving frame – time.   Or, literally, to look at the present as the only redeemable moment, to believe its weight in eternity is just as strong as the past’s or the future’s; present-time redemption gives us all as much of a chance for salvation as any other moment. 

I’m not so sure about the rest of the poem, but I like the idea of partitioning time to equal-valued moments through the importance of the present. 

I understand now those places Eliot uses to evoke this.
* * * * *
I have written before that my favorite part of London, the parts I will miss the most and think of the most and use as my memory metaphor for “time-spent-in-London”, are the roads.  Then, I meant the roads escaping into and out of London, the roads to Windsor and Kent and Surrey through Bromley and Richmond.  To me, these roads were conduits from an A to B, a journey for me to go somewhere on a weekend morning to listen to bright colored leaves in the grey rain and to see the horses breathe on a cold Sunday. 

I liked the hedgerow in Kent.  When you move fast through it – for me, on a bike – you move without knowing who will meet you around the corner.  You go, quickly, through the green, and there’s a deep sense of faith in the gravel, in your intuition, in your reflexes that what you meet around the hedgerow is slower than you.

And my favorite road going out and into London is a road in Bromley.  A very straight and flat road.  In the summers, autumn and winters, the road is easily missed, with its small homes lining the street and cars parked along both sides.  But in April, in April after a game through the hedgerow and hours spent along the hills in the woods and farms, the road is lined with cherry blossoms and greets you after a five hour ride like you are the winner of a great race, the maestro of some wonderful orchestra.

For me, that road in Bromley meant an espresso and pastry at Crystal Palace after a hard morning with good friends and better stories before going back through the busy streets into Elephant and Castle and past Waterloo Bridge closer to Southwark High Street to a busier afternoon and evening.
* * * * *
“nothing is easier…than to revoke the great spirit of the past upon the lower reaches of the Thames” – Heart of Darkness, Conrad

(note: Juli told me a story of a seagull she once saw devouring a snake found in the Thames.  I’m not sure I believe anything can live in those waters, but I believe her story.  Tyler once stopped me from jumping off Millennium Bridge into the Thames late one night as part of a dare; I believe it’s the best thing he’s ever done for me.)

Nothing about the Thames is poetic.  It’s grey and brown, and it reminds me of the streets of London during the early evenings in February.  But for some reason, I remember it distinctly.  I can picture it rolling downwards from Tower Bridge, past London Bridge and through Putney and onwards, rolling to some tidal beat I can’t discern. 

It’s with this same distinction that I remember the grey walkways and walls of buildings, the dampness of the winter mornings during my commute to campus.  It’s the dampness that wakes you up, when the sun is still too tired to come out, and you feel your face is cold and the rest of you is warm, and the comforter is some mysterious, big heater with your curled body as the coals inside the furnace.  

And on rainy mornings, when you can get yourself up and out of your furnace-comforter, to get your shoes on and out the door, and if you can get yourself to breathe the city air, and to run alongside the Thames when it’s raining, wet (and your hair is wet, and your clothes, and your shoes since you’ve been running through all the puddles), you can come back to hot espresso and poetry.  And I promise you, it’s really something.
* * * * *
I forget the names of roads which turn into other roads – high streets and circuses – the little roads that diverge, change names, and re-emerge again.  I was lost quite often when I first came to London.  I followed names.  That was the mistake.  Now, I know better and follow a general direction (a post code or the river), and I let the little off-streets, alleyways, mews take me to the roads and the streets with changing names, and I know the little roads will always lead to the bigger ones, like the streams leading to the rivers.

I think if we were to map the off-shoots of roads in London, it would look like the zooming in of a coastal line.  I think it would look like a fractal.  And I think London, unlike New York, became complex not vertically but spatially, and it’s this complexity through its roads that has made me attached to London.
* * * * *
Attachment is born from distinction.  It’s impossible to become attached to something vague – to something nameless, formless, unknown, trite. 

The evocation of a place is made through distinct objects: vinegar crisps and bacon baps and pork pies; grey and wet mornings that covers an otherwise white city; the rolling, brown Thames; red double-decker buses; and the roads – the roads that lead to and from the city with memories of sunny or not-sunny mornings or sunny-mornings-that-will-rain or not-sunny-mornings-that-will-tease-the-sun with laugher and stories and things that are harder to say; those roads through the city where we had coffee or breakfast, where I shared this and you told me that, where we went for a drink at a pub with a funny name on the corner; the roads that hide little, curious places that we found or didn’t find or may find or may never find.

The love of a place is made through its people.
* * * * *
The next few lines in Little Gidding:
With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

And the way up is the same as the way down, and sometimes I think everything is just a little concentric circle after another, one moving thing after another around something not moving, which is the center.  It’s like those complicated roads, bending and emerging one off another but leading to the same big road, which is all here, and there, in London.
* * * * *
I left London in the sun to come to Connecticut in the rain.  I’m back where I started a year ago to go back in a little bit longer, but for now, to finish what I’ve begun with modified excerpts from Little Gidding since it fits so much this year:

The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
     I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
     Both one and many; in the brown baked features
     The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
     So I assumed a double part, and cried
     And heard another's voice cry: 'What! are you here?'
Although we were not. I was still the same,
     Knowing myself yet being someone other—
     And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
     And so, compliant to the common wind,
     Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
     Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
     We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: 'The wonder that I feel is easy,
     Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
     I may not comprehend, may not remember.'
And he: 'I am not eager to rehearse
     My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
     These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
     By others, as I pray you to forgive
     Both bad and good…
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
     He left me, with a kind of valediction,
     And faded on the blowing of the horn.

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