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A Country without Memory

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Maryhill and Celilo
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© 2011 John Lesage


        London


I went to London to learn a little English and to see dead people. This city originated much of the English language. London place names have become words, such as bedlam, billingsgate, Soho, and the clink. Though many cities worldwide now have a Soho – artsy, bohemian imitations of the London archetype – the original was named for a hunting call. On downing a bird, a hunter would call out soho! to release the dogs. The fields, woods and marshes in the gap between London proper and the royal “village” of Westminster – in what's now an urban setting – were a favorite of sporting kings such as Henry VIII.
            Looking for dead people, I walked Greenwich, Chelsea, Soho, Mayfair, Hampstead, Highgate, Westminster, Southwark and the City. I found a few – Thomas More, Johnson and Jonson, two Shakespeares (a brother followed him to London), George Orwell, Aldous Huxley...
            If you tell a Brit you're over there to see history, you sometimes get a cool reception, best interpreted as "You wanted your own country, now get your own heritage." But the guide for a walk called Westminster at War said to the American participants, "Welcome home." Rather mixed feelings, don't you think? I told him my dad landed in Normandy.
            I walked past the cemetery in Highgate where Karl Marx is buried. The gate keeper charges three pounds to get in. I told her that I'd had my fill of dead people for one day, that "you've got quite a few of them over here, you know." I could have walked in to confirm that he's still dead, but didn't. Three quid to see Marx? That's a little ironic, but not as ironic as Marx getting evicted from a flat in Chelsea (a social-climbing, upwardly mobile Marx?).
            It might sound a little dysfunctional going there just to see dead people, as most of them already know that they're dead. However, I noticed a few live ones too. I visited an Oxford-educated, retired chemistry prof with whom I discussed the history of science. I also mixed it up with a “mixed” couple in Petersfield (he's a Brit, she's from the Bronx). And I witnessed the government almost collapse while I was there – entertaining.


I consider it self-evident that not all dead folks are created equal. Some are more significant than their peers – more posthumously influential. Shakespeare is more equal than others. He's the source of much that became cliché, though as clichés go, his are more interesting than most. And Shakespearian expressions can always be freshened up. Something's rotten in Denmark, and I think it's the cheese. Absinthe makes the sight grow dimmer. A rose by any other name will be marked wrong on the Botany exam. Discretion is the better part of truth.
            While walking past the row houses of Chelsea, I considered that Marx had some effect. Though he was explicit about violence or its potential in his theory of class succession, implying that a riot is a form of collective bargaining, Marx isn't responsible for Stalin any more than Adam Smith is responsible for the recent bank bailouts. While walking Bloomsbury, I noted that the 1930's era Senate House makes an excellent icon for totalitarianism. Eric Blair worked there during the Second World War when it housed the Ministry of Information, changing it to the Ministry of Truth for 1984, and making himself into George Orwell.


For all the historical individuals I could list, the city itself seems to be a major player – the faceless, amorphous mass of people. When the Romans founded Londinium 2,000 years ago, a number of cities far to the east had already been around for well over 2,000 years. However, in the Western European tradition, London was the first modern metropolis. This calls into question just what we mean by modern. By one definition, it means current – of the present era. This definition is wholly inadequate, as it could not be applied to England in the year 700. Modern means urban, industrial, vocationally specialized – using technologies for communication and conveyance that remove traditional barriers of space and time. Things happened here first – the first omnibus, the first underground railroad, the first police force – as well as the first insane asylum, or need for one. Which brings us back to that faceless mass.
            In spite of fire and plague, London's population almost tripled during the 17th century, reaching 550,000 by the year 1700. It approached a million in 1800, but then increased 6 times over the next century. Throughout most of this time, the number of deaths far exceeded the number of births in this town, meaning that immigration from the countryside fueled its growth. Few in its poorest classes lived into their 30's. The dominant, defining characteristic of modernizing London was its grinding, brutalizing poverty. Country folk went to London for the opportunities. Compared to the restrictions of small-town England, compared to what Marx called the idiocy of country life, stadtluft macht frei. But if city air made one free, it made a few other things as well.
            The first police force, yes – and the first serial killers in the modern sense. From centuries ago, on several continents, some aristocratic individuals have been sufficiently powerful to transcend the law, murdering people sometimes in the hundreds for sport or deep psychological need. But London spawned the first serial killers in an urban setting, hiding in the anonymity of the crowd, with the events exploited by a sensationalist press. This was something new.
            London also pioneered a new form of class-based sympathy for criminals. A cockney named Jack Sheppard became famous as an escape artist. Though a common thief, he displayed on several occasions an uncommon ability to get out of Newgate Prison. At the height of his fame, street urchins were more likely to know his name than that of Jesus Christ.
            In London's east end, I walked past a pub called the Crown and Dolphin. This was in Whitechapel, at the corner of Cannon and Cable Streets. This pub enshrines a skull, that of accused murderer John Williams. He was suspected of murdering multiple people in what was called the Ratcliffe Highway Murders. As a member of the underclass, he knew he hadn't a chance against judge and jury. He hanged himself in his cell rather than prolong the agony. The authorities, deprived of the usual spectacle of a public hanging, determined that his soul should have no rest, put a stake through his heart, and buried him under one of the busiest east-end intersections. When maintenance workers discovered them, fellow Cockneys disseminated his bones throughout the city, much as relics of the true cross.