Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Imagined London: A Tour of the World's Greatest Fictional City

For me, reading Anna Quindlen’s slender slip of a book was like meeting up with a like-minded friend in a pub on a foggy night. The farther I read, the more I kept thinking “I know! Me, too!”  I, too, grew up on a diet of English books (Edith Blyton’s Famous Five series and Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia come to mind) and often wished more people in my world exclaimed “I say!”  while drinking ginger beer.

Quindlen was an American anglophile long before she ventured to London in the flesh (like Henry James, like T. S. Eliot), waiting purposefully until she was in her forties. When I first traveled to England in my almost-thirties, I was also worried that the spell of all its fictions would be shattered once I walked the hallowed ground myself. Anyone who has been there can attest; England truly has the power of literary and historical magic still firmly in hand. I was not disappointed and neither was Quindlen.

Quindlen focuses on the grand city herself, and walks the streets and boroughs with her estimable ghost army of fictional tour guides: P. D. James’ Adam Dagliesh in Soho;  A.A. Milne’s Christopher Robin at Buckingham Palace; and John Galworthy’s  Forsythe family’s sooty assessments of  Green Street, Montpelier Square and Knightsbridge; to name but a few.

Charles Dickens also wandered with Quindlen and bemoaned many a street in London, but Quindlen quickly learned to take his wailings with a grain of salt: “[a] visitor can take the Tube to London’s most notorious neighborhoods, and not see anything that approaches the dingy squalor of Dickens’ London. This is either a tribute to urban renewal or literary overstatement.” She tends to believe the latter is the stronger case.

London also withholds some charm for what it can no longer reveal. On the south side of the Thames, across from the Tower, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, there is the South Bank and Southwark. Historically, this area was “a kind of London frontier”, where the smelly tanneries and soap factories were placed. This was where Chaucer's Canterburian-bound travelers begun their pilgrimage. Here were the original locations of Shakespeare's Globe Theatres, not too far from its rebuilt modern successor.  Now, “Southwark is new London with a vengeance” and you’d be hard pressed to imagine the stink and decline that once defined this part of town. But it is likely that most tourists, however interested they may be in finding the literary made manifest, appreciate breathing the improved air!

Quindlen admitted there were those occasions when London let her down. 221b Baker Street, home of detective Sherlock Holmes, was commemorated downwind of the address, between 237 and 241. Holmes himself, “who loathed sentiment, much less pretence,” would be beside himself if he saw the Sherlock Holmes food and beverage shop,  Sherlock memorabilia and souvenir shops, and the fake bobby at his wrongly addressed door! Even London can fall victim to kitsch, as much as any other beloved place.

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