London is a Place

(The Ravengate Press, Boston, 1951)

The Fog Skyskine More Fog London Spring Clouds Over London Child in the London Streets Hyde Park London Preachers

The Fog

London is a place. Berlin is an idea. Paris is both a place and an idea. London could never be a different place, but it could readily be a different idea. London is not a geometrical but a geographical center, around which additions are made not by way of logic but of land.

London is the fixed center of something for which no circumference, or shape of any kind has been found. Take out your map of the world. Observe the spaces which are blotted out in red. You will then see the utterly shapeless, yet completely factual thing of which London is the center.

All distance is measured from London, whether it be in practical science (longitude, East and West), or in practical sentiment (“Come down to Kew in lilac-time; it isn’t far from London!”).

London is the temporal city, temporal in the full sense of time as our senses report it. Rome is eternal. Paris is perpetual. Berlin is recurrent. But London is continual.

All time is reckoned from London (Greenwich), and sounded from it (Big Ben). If you want to set your watch in any part of the world, you must refer to London time. And London time is not any logical standard, but an otherwise capricious clock, regulated by London, and preserved in one of its observatories.

If you want to know the distance from one place to another, you must turn to London’s standard of distance: a metal bar, arbitrarily called “a yard” and hidden in the House of Parliament.

Paris measurements are in the beautiful metric system, and are made in terms of a logical standard, because Paris is both a place and an idea. Paris calls one ten millionth of one quarter of the Earth’s circumference a meter; and with ten as a logical standard of numeration, a cube as a logical standard of shape, and water as a natural standard of weight, Paris constructs logical norms: for volume, in terms of a liter; for weight, in terms of a gram. London measurements are of an entirely different kind.

What happens to be the local unit in London, is expected to be the standard unit everywhere. A rod is 16½ feet. Why such a queer number of feet? Because it happens to be the length of something in London. A mile is 5280 feet. Why the 280? Because it happens to be the distance from someplace to someplace in London. 2000 pounds make a ton. Why? Because that is what something in London weighs, when you put it on something else, arbitrarily called “a scales.”

London is not the place you go to learn anything. It is the place you go to observe. London is not only full of observatories and museums, it is itself both a museum and an observatory.

London is neither right nor wrong, true or false. London is correct. And scrupulously precise. London never dismisses anything false by saying: “It couldn’t be done!” London never dismisses anything wrong by saying: “It shouldn’t be done!” London merely says: “It isn’t done!”, by which is meant: It isn’t done in London.

London is not only spatial and temporal, it is completely local. London does not mean England. London does not even mean Britain. England is a lot (a good deal) of land protected by water. Britain is a lot of (a great many) lands protected by ships. But London is a lot (a plot) of land protected by both.

Liverpool may be the port of departure from London to the rest of the world, but London itself is always the point of that departure. For the essence of a locus, in so far as it can have one, is seen in the point of departure. When a Londoner retires to the country for a vacation, he refers to this as living in the country. He also refers to it as living out of LONDON. London is the place a Londoner lives “out of” when he lives “in” any other place, be it Ottawa, Calcutta, or Rangoon.

You never become a Londoner by going there to live. You do not even become a Londoner by having come to life there. For London is more than a space and a place: it is a place within a space, a section within a section. It is, in a word, a spot. And the specifications for the spot have been correctly inked in the London code.

If you have been born in the wrong part of London; or if you have been born in some other city: Manchester, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bristol (unless your birth there can be explained as an accident, as some sort of visit, for which you had official permission), it is already too late to become a Londoner. London can use you — from the wrong town, the wrong district, the wrong cradle — it may even adopt you (legally), but it will never elevate you to the status of the spot.

The passport to being a Londoner is not your birthright (which could spot you anywhere), but your birth certificate (which puts you on the spot). If everything comes off as specified — if you are Tommy Twicklethorpe III, grandson of Thomas Twicklethorpe II, born of wealthy and idle (or at least bankrupt and indolent) parents, and entitled to something either in land or litigation the instant you begin to breathe at No. 2 Tottenham Terrace; if, in a word, you are “the time, the place, and the loved one all together,” then, and only then, are you a Londoner. And once stamped with the London seal of approval, you may become as cosmopolitan as you care to. You cannot be corrected in any other part of the world even though you go to Turkey and wear a fez. You are correct.

Besides being spatial, local, temporal, precise, and correct, London is (and no wonder!) thoroughly material. London gives nothing cultural, racial, social, or religious, to any of its far-flung towns, whether it be Belfast, Baghdad, or Bombay. London merely regulates what it finds there. In return for its laws, it demands their loyalties. It never takes any culture from its subservient cities, only their cargoes.

Mr. Masefield, London’s present poet laureate, acknowledges that the ancient quinquireme of Nineveh brought culture in its cargo from distant Ophir to sunny Palestine:

With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Likewise, Mr. Masefield agrees that the medieval galleon brought culture as well as cargo back from the Isthmus, through the Tropics, to Spain:

With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amethysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

But, on Mr. Masefield’s own admission, here is what comes back to London from its disparate dependencies:

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rail, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

And what does London dispense to its dominated areas in return for this raw material? Mr. Kipling, Mr. Masefield’s unofficial predecessor, has already told us. It is:

Boots — boots — boots — boots, movin’ up an’ down again!
There’s no discharge in the war!

A cargo of dragoons and discipline (English dragoons and London discipline), that’s what goes out from London by way of boats.

Oh, of course, London has a merchant marine, as well as a fleet of warships, and it would not be true to say that London sends them back always empty to the ports from which they came. But they carry, on their return voyage, no produce, only products. “Give us the materials, and we will make the things!” has ever been London’s commercial cry on the sea. “Give us the money, and we will make the investments!” … “Give us the territories, and we will make the treaties!” … “Give us the weapons, and we will win the wars!” …

Now the essence of matter, according to the philosophers, is found in this: in a material thing that asks for nothing but what is material, and gives nothing material back. Such a thing is London.

Or, is it a thing? Outsiders refer to London as a noun: “London hears … London feels … London regrets … London demands … ” Insiders refer to it as a pronoun: “We feel … We maintain … We demand … We are determined … ” One does not know in just what category of thingness to place London. Is it a site, or a set? A set-up, or a sentiment? One will never know, in an entity so undefinable. Whatever it is, history reports something it once had. It once had a local nationality (English), and a universal religion (Catholic). It now has a local religion (Anglican), and a universal nationality (British). London is the temporal, material, local pivot around which this weird rotation was made. That is why I call it a place. Not an idea. And certainly not a place and an idea together.

If you become surfeited with what London offers you by way of place, and would like to enjoy what Christendom offers you by way of abode, London never refers to this as “going over to Catholicism.” It always refers to it as “going over to Rome.” London feels that a change of faith, or even a change to Faith, is a change of local allegiance. London can keep you terribly frightened about making this change, and terribly worried after you have made it, by the incessant use, with the sibilant stressed, of a single word: “disloyal.”

I have said that London is continual. How does it continue? Where does the new London come from when the old one disappears? The answer is that there is never a new London, only the old one continued. A “New London” could appear only in the United States, and that would not be the place, only the name.

But where do the new Londoners come from when the old ones die? Again a foolish question; For there are never any new Londoners, only the old ones repeated. You become a Londoner, not in a lifetime, but in a minute. You are just as much a Londoner when you are Tommy Twicklethorpe III drinking milk in your crib, as when you are Tommy Twicklethorpe II drinking whiskey in your club.

The children of London live in London. The children of Londoners do not. The children of Londoners live outside the city in private institutions known as “public schools.” The children of London stay in London, play in the streets, starve in the slums.

When the children of London grow up, they become, not Londoners, but the people of London. And they still play a game they used to play in the streets: London Bridge is falling down! In the air raids of modern war, the Londoners either leave the city, or are hidden under it. But the people of London stay in the streets. London Bridge is falling down, falling down on you! O people of London, fortunate to be even the ruins of such an irreplaceable area.

London is a pleasant place for poets to live in. Not profound poets, of which London has none, but pleasant ones. London once had a profound poet, Shakespeare, but he was a profound funeral oration on the spiritual death of England: “To be, or not to be!” London had another profound poet, Milton, but he was a profound memorial service: “Paradise Lost.” Since then, London has had no profound poets, only pleasant ones, and perhaps more pleasant ones than any other city in the world.

It is pleasant for the poet to refer to refreshment as “cakes and ale,” instead of just calling it “food.” It is pleasant for the poet to refer to time as “Big Ben,’’ to recreation as “Kensington,” to music as “Covent Garden,” to punishment as “Coventry,” to torture as “The Tower,” even to usury as “The Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.” London is just the right concretion for the small ideas that small poets get. It supplies them with pleasant names for unpleasant things, and with even more pleasant names for the pleasant ones. It is no wonder that the greatest small poet London ever had (Charles Dickens) dispensed his poetic localisms in prose. For prose is the best medium for setting small standards for other writers to copy: Scrooge, Mr. Pickwick, Mr. Murdstone, Mr. Pecksniff, Peggotty, Uriah Heep. Whenever London had on its hands anything larger than a small poet, he either became a pantheist, and therefore too unlocal for London; a transcendentalist, and disappeared into China by way of opium; or else a man with a good honest heartache, who ran off to the Continent and was buried in Rome or drowned on the shores of Greece.

In music London has Gilbert (a poet) chasing Sullivan (a composer) up and down the scale and trying to match every note of a Londonderry air with the syllable of a London word.

Left all to itself as sheer matter (for matter, after all, exists, and is therefore beautiful) London is, on a quiet evening, or an almost-sunny afternoon, dotted with small tokens of its own typical and topical beauty. I knew, when I visited London some years ago, that I would find the right person and place to represent it, and that I would find them together.

I found them in the person (and place) of a dear old man, sitting on one of the benches in Bird Cage Walk, just outside the important precincts of Buckingham Palace. No one could call this man “John Bull.” But it would be easy and graceful to call him “John O’ London.”

This old man is the quintessence of everything lovely and local in London, as Dickens was wont to describe it. He is memorable, indispensable, unique. He is not in the least “out of his mind,” but there are some things he does not seem quite able to remember.

John O’ London does not circulate through the Empire as Londoners do. He sits on the same bench, day after day, year after year, decade after decade, with birds about him, his head full of dreams, a book in his hand, and a sprig of lavender in his coat. He remains, and almost is London.

In status, this lovely old man is half way up from the slums, half way down from the gentry. He is gentle, without the right to be called, there, “a gentleman.” His voice is quiet and refined. His language is choice, without being “educated.” His hair is a beautiful English silver (foggy silver), and his eyes are a beautiful English blue (springtime blue).

Old John O’ London (elderly, would be a better word than old) knows all the important things that are happening in politics, and all the select things that are happening in social circles. But he himself is neither political nor select. He is reserved.

His courtesy to a duke is as effortless as his kindness to a beggar. His is that spirit out of which everything lovely and local in English literature has been molded, molded in the most beautiful local language (I believe) in the world.

One both likes (likes terribly) and pities (pities terribly) this exquisite old man, too innocent to know how good he is, too stupid to know what he represents.

One thing I noticed about him particularly. He is never, never, never in a hurry. He has altogether too much time on his hands.