It is 9 o’clock in the morning. You lift the eyes from your phone, as the sliding doors of the tube are opening. You are at the Covent Garden tube station. In a few meters, you slow down the pace: there is a queue of passengers before you, waiting to reach the exit. You are finally out. Swarms of people are running around, from and towards any direction. They vanish a few seconds later, only to reappear wearing new faces. You cross the Piazza: school groups and tourists are pushing each other for a place on the sidewalk: they are about to watch a street performance. You decide to do some shopping and enter a store, the size of a regional airport. Two hours later, you are finally out again, trying to figure out how it got dark so soon. Welcome to London, modern Babylon of Europe.
Every time I think of this city, the image that first comes to mind is a long and narrow street, filled with crowds on the run. I simply cannot imagine London without its volume, its diversity, and its energy. In an ironic -yet so delightful- tone, French diplomat Paul Morand once noted that London is beautiful “because of its people” -while Paris “in spite of them”-.
Who are all those people? Where do they go in such a hurry, looking so task-focused, so unfazed? One day, like a first-time swimmer in uncharted waters, I decided to mix with the crowds. I followed shoppers burdened with bags, anxious yuppies and overexcited tourists, like myself. They were all galloping in a pace of a cavalry on attack. I watched the most experienced ones holding their coffee cups in one hand, texting with the other, while glancing up to avoid any accidents: a perilous balance of speed, agility and reflex only Londoners -and New Yorkers- know how to master.
It is the “Oxford Street tide” Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) depicts below in such vivid colors. A major modernist writer of the 20th century, Woolf received an upper-class, home-schooled education, protected from the outside world. Imagine the shock for young Virginia to wander along the jungle streets of London, observing the dockworkers on the riverbank, trying to create order out of chaos. In The London Scene, a series of essays of her city impressions, we find the liveliest descriptions of Oxford Street in the early ‘30s: when she was walking on a tide of buzzing vans, buses, music bands and magicians; and when the endless avenue appeared to her amazed eyes as “a perpetual ribbon of changing sights, sounds and movement”.
The relation between trade and architecture is discussed by British writer and literary critic, Victor Sawdon Pritchett (1900 – 1997) . A polyglot traveler, Sir Pritchett was recognized as “the finest English short-story writer of the 20th century” by the Royal Society of Literature. In London Perceived, he delivers an insightful analysis of the economic, political and religious factors that defined the Londoner culture. In this selected extract, V.S. Pritchett brilliantly explains how the merchants’ domination of London defined the development of its landscape.
It is not only London’s volume and fast pace that create such a vibrant energy in the air: it is also the city’s fascinating variety of cultures. French diplomat Paul Morand (1888 – 1976), a man who spent a good part of his life in England, depicts London’s cosmopolitanism. An avid traveler and acute observer, he was able to fathom the psychology of the locals in any city he would visit. During the ’30s, in London, Morand had the chance to explore a wide spectrum of classes and cultures: from the noble Londoner of the garden-parties to the Indian chauffeur; and from the Italian journalist to the cockney of the pubs he frequented. In the following extract, this talented diplomat draws a discerning portrait of what it was like to live in Europe’s largest melting pot.
Bigger, faster, stronger
Everything is here on a larger module; private clubs are like palaces, hotels are real monuments; the river is like an arm of the sea; cabs go twice as fast; sailors and omnibus drivers swallow a whole sentence in a word: they save on words and gestures, they make the most of action and time; man produces and spends twice as much as in France.
Notes sur l’Angleterre, Hachette, 1890.
I saw the most astonishing thing that the world can show: […] this forest of brick houses, crossed by a fierce river of living human faces, with all colors of their passions, with all the maddening haste for love, hunger and hate… I’m talking about London.
Reisebilder – Tableaux de voyage, Renduel, 1834.
A city like London, where you can walk for hours without even reaching the beginning of the end […] is something truly extraordinary. […] – All of this is so grand, so immense, that one can become stunned and amazed of the greatness of England before even setting foot on its soil.
An extraordinary listening post
(London) is an extraordinary listening post. It is the only place in the world where one can meet, on the same day, a banker who disembarks from New York, a journalist who arrives from the USSR, a hunter of wild animals returning from Congo, a prospector who descends from the plane Cap-au-Caire; where one has at his disposal the most rapid cables, the best newspaper correspondents, the most alert foreign diplomats, and in general, the most reliable documentation. […]
(The city) extends to infinity, without getting lost in the abstract like Moscow, or without the intention to surprise like Berlin. […] (London’s) geography is made for its own use: we therefore learn that Montreal is ten seconds away from Piccadilly and Singapore within reach from Strand; whereas Toulouse is six months away and Warsaw an entire year. The British universe is a hermetic world sufficient in itself […].
Built on the marsh, London […] is not based on civilizations superposed like mattresses; here, everything is mixed up. Are we in the 13th, the 18th, the 20th century? No one knows that more than they know if it is noon or eight in the morning, by merely looking at the sky.
Londres, Plon, 1962
Those merchants who made London
From the 12th to the 19th century, […] the aristocracy was born from the bourgeoisie […] and this bourgeoisie was powerful: the first thing London merchants purchased was their freedom from the royal justice and the sheriffs; […]
But these merchants, so skilful and so jealous, were not endowed with imagination; they still had so little sense of the sea and trade that they had to appeal to foreigners for foreign trade; in times past, sometimes it was the Romans, other times it was the Danes (who, apparently, pushed their naval trips to the New World and the Far East), then the Normans, the Genoese; then, it was Flanders and Guyenne that London would address to.
(The city) had become as cosmopolitan as was the heritage of the Plantagenets; the Hanseatic League owned the monopoly of the Baltic trade; the Jews and the people of Lombardy possessed the banking monopoly. The Flemish settled in with their large corporate families, called guilds; the latter grouped together – as in Bruges, as in 12th-century Paris, and still today in the City or in the oriental souks- trades and professions by street. Harley Street still remains the street of the doctors; Victoria Street, that of the engineers.
These guilds, real mutual aid societies -each possessing its own life, its monopoly, its patron saint, its public holidays- have been grouped together in a common room of the Town Hall, the Guildhall; it is they who created London.
From the 14th century onwards, they own considerable possessions and with each financial crisis of the royalty (kings are always in need of money), every time they were called in, they were enriched with new privileges. […] The role of the guilds was crucial; still today, they provide the look of the city of London. […] They generated those municipal assemblies of free citizens, from which the English Parliament arose, as the father of all parliaments on earth.
Londres, Plon, 1962
Swallowed by the city
This is simply to say that London is before anything else the world’s market, and that markets are as sensitive as opera singers. And this no doubt explains why London is the least splendid, the least ostentatious of the great capitals. Property is what it cares for. It has no definable style, though, as Henry James said, it has a succession of attempts at style. […]
The plain fact is the mercantile class that has owned London is now making gross fortunes by speculating in the rebuilding of it and is too greedy to be splendid. […] The merchants have always beaten down the planners; the mercantile mind cannot tolerate either vista or perspective.
It is indispensable for traders to dwell, as Walter Bagehot said, in a twilight where no shapes, sizes and distances are defined. We have no rhetorical architecture at all, and it is notorious that when Sir Christopher Wren planned a new London after the Great Fire of 1666, he was defeated. The Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are among the few great edifices to stand in sufficient space, compose a view, and dominate a distance. St Paul’s, on its hill, is still shut in by the money-makers. Our only boulevards are the Mall and the Embankment of the river from Blackfriars to Chelsea; and though we have our monuments, palaces, mansions, formidable institutes, our rich art galleries and even a triumphal arch or two, these have been swallowed by the city. They are domesticated; they are never ornately imposed.
Oxford street tide
In Oxford Street there are too many bargains, too many sales, too many goods marked down to one and eleven three that only last week cost two and six. The buying and selling is too blatant and raucous. […]
Everything glitters and twinkles. The first spring day brings out barrows frilled with tulips, violets, daffodils in brilliant layers. The frail vessels eddy vaguely across the stream of the traffic. At one corner seedy magicians are making slips of colored paper expand in magic tumblers into bristling forests of splendidly tinted flora – a subaqueous flower garden. At another, tortoises repose on litters of grass. […]
News changes quicker than in any other part of London. The press of people passing seems to lick the ink off the placards and to consume more of them and to demand fresh supplies of later editions faster than elsewhere. The mind becomes a glutinous slab that takes impressions and Oxford Street rolls off upon it a perpetual ribbon of changing sights, sounds and movement.
Parcels slap and hit; motor omnibuses the kerb; the blare of a whole brass band in full graze tongue dwindles to a thin reed of sound. Buses, vans, cars, barrows stream past like the fragments of a picture puzzle; a white arm rises; the puzzle runs thick, coagulates, stops; the white arm sinks, and away it streams again, streaked, twisted, higgledy-piggledy, in perpetual race and disorder. The puzzle never fits itself together, however long we look.
The London Scene, Hogarth Press, 1975
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