Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Literariness.

I was sitting in the back of a black cab driving into London for the first time when my literary-counterpart of a friend said, “I feel like Virginia Woolf could leap out of a window and land on top of this car at any moment.”

Even though V. Woolf opted to shove rocks into her pockets and walk into a river as a form of suicide, I couldn’t help but agree with the above statement. Why, you ask? Because, whether people like it or not, London is inherently literary.

Among my many reasons for wanting to travel to England, the inherent literariness was the real gripping matter of fact. I don’t want to dismiss American literature – or any other nation’s writing – but it seems pretty obvious – maybe due to pure historical existence – that British literature dominates the quality of the world’s writings. I’ll admit this is a big leap, and my inner Greek heritage is crying over a copy of Antigone right now, but perhaps I’ll amend my statement by saying that British literature has consistently dominated with quality writing over time.

In the tightly knit world of academics and avid readers exists the constant argument to determine which spot on the globe can righteously call itself The World’s Most Literary City. National Geographic claims that two of the top three spots are in the UK (Edinburgh at #1 and London at #3 – Dublin takes #2) and I hardly find that a coincidence. Now, I don’t want to suggest that the only good literature has been written in these spots, that you must live there to write good literature, or even that citizens can become literary living in such a city, but I think I do want to argue that a city could be inherently literary. Bear with me.

It seems to me that some cities are naturally more inspiring than others. Any city can offer art, music, and centralized opportunity to a greater amount than, say, the countryside, so it seems plausible to say certain cities have the potential to possess that spark to ignite the thought of a book, a character, a new world. As nearly 15 million newspapers are sold and read every day in Great Britain – and with an “adult” population of about 50 million, that means nearly 30% of people are reading about the news every single day. And that doesn’t even count online sources or broadcast television. And let’s compare that to America’s 4.5% readership, which is apparently still higher than people who read online. Kind of seems like Britons have the literary gene, no? 

To add to that, I can think of about a million English people who’d rather write a passionately-worded letter than proclaim their thoughts from towers above. The desire to read and write seems embedded in English skin. I don’t dare quantify this with real scientific proof, but in attempts to look up the number of English writers who were born, wrote about, or died in London, I came across this little list. You count up all those names and then we’ll talk. Just thinking about London, it’s easy to say that most of English writers have gone through or written about the country’s capital city – some even made their entire career talking about London. Charles Dickens, Virginia Woolf, Robert Louis Stevenson to a certain extent, T.S. Eliot, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Daniel Defoe, E.M. Forester, Ian Flemming, on and on. There has to be a compass buried beneath the Thames that attracts the literary-minded, then lets them bud, grow, and blossom. The English soil seems as fertile as literary New York City – actually more so, once we consider a fine group called the Ex-Patriates. They felt that magnetic pull too. It’s not just that the city feels like the center of it all, it’s that the city has that extra kick, spice, flavor to make the ultimate bookish concoction.

It could be that history has pervading the modern conscious, but strolling through Bloomsbury, walking down the streets the Woolf, Lytton Strachey, and the whole Bloomsbury Group trekked really makes you feel a twinge in the air – an urge, an urge to write of the tall, towering tree that was only newly planted to Virginia, a seed to Dickens, and dirt to Will Shakespeare. Even all those Romantics from the 19th century who blamed London for their heartache (damn you, Industrial Revolution!) couldn’t help but have London saturate their language and push for that desire of nature. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, and Shelley were quick to dismiss industrial, urbanized life, but that didn’t stop them from using the draw of London to become immortalized in idyllic landscapes, sick, sailors, and a Grecian urn.

 Everywhere you walk in London, blue plaques resembling dreamy eyes stare down at you with monumental names of people who did truly great things in past ages. The city has been left polka dotted with the products of its own creation and I can’t help but think: what is it about London? In a way, that’s what this whole writing for me is about – but I need to rationalize this literariness if it’s the last thing I do.

England’s self-awareness of literary history is pretty evident not just in the plaques, but the unabashed commercialism surrounding it. Take Dickens' Curiosity Shop.

Traveling to Canterbury, England? Be sure to hit up this Chaucer hot-spot.

Don’t forget the Bronte-centered Yorkshire.

Or Bath’s ode to Jane Austen (even though she lived there for only two years and hated every minute of it).

You can try a Mr. Darcy, Love Me scone in the tea room or the residents’ favorite tote bag. 

Or an Oliver Twist inspired muffin at the Charles Dickens Coffee House.

Looking for street art depicting Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind”? No problem – London’s got you.

Still, the ultimate questions remain: why is it that reading Bleak House in front of the High Courts of Chancery and Mrs. Dalloway down at Picadilly Circus gives context beyond the ink that melts off the page onto the same sidewalk of men like Jekyll & Hyde, Oliver Twist, and Dorian Gray? Monuments to writers lay secluded deep in Westminster Abbey – set apart for exclusivity from the world, but also clearly inclusive in putting authors next to headstones for queens and former bishops. It’s one thing to say, Oh yeah, England had Austen, the Brontes, Shakespeare, and a few poets… and it’s another to stand before centuries of authors’ names carved in stone, leaving merely a name, date, and oh yeah, a few books that’ve lasted through wars, pestilence, illiteracy and moved across oceans into house, schools, minds, hearts. It all started with some ink and maybe a bit of paper in a London coffeeshop, or household, or library and ends with something forever carved in stone, inked into brains forever.

Ray Bradbury (who’s actually American, despite this long-winded admiration for the Brits) said in Fahrenheit 451 that we’d never really lose literature because, somewhere, someone had to have memorized every word of Plato, Shakespeare, or Orwell. A thought scribbled in the margin of a London newspaper can end up in etched in the hearts of far-off admirers for eternity.

Just something to think about.

As for London's inherent literariness - I could never prove one way or another that that city possesses the perfect tablet and pot of ink for writers to write away the world, but at least I can always revisit the magnetism with the turn of a page before my bookshelf.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Food.

Before I left for England, advice was thrown my way like drunks playing darts in a pub. A lot of the advice was nonsensical, overly-critical, generalizing, or simply incorrect, however, a subtle nearly-invisible thread existed in their words. I’m going to take a leaf out of those people’s books and make a bold statement in the same light – only this statement is true. I’ll say it, I will. Everyone’s thinking it, but I’ll be the one to say it. The English can’t do food. Yes, it’s actually that bad.

Okay, maybe I’m not being fair. It’s not that I want to retract my statement so soon, but I don’t want my English friends to hate me. Let me rephrase: generally, the English can’t do food. (I don’t know if that changed anything, but I tried.)

Just imagine a perfectly good plate of…anything. Hamburger, pizza, chicken, fish, anything. Now imagine that perfectly acceptable plate of food left to soak in a pot of grease over a stove on Wednesday, only suddenly remembered once a copy of The Guardian hits a front door step on Sunday. The result is an overly-cooked and overly-soaked taste in a somehow-pulled-together, seemly-looking dish. You learn the tricks to cope, of course. Salt and pepper make everything better, naturally. But another unsung hero makes everything great: ketchup. Ketchup becomes the elixir that makes you wonder why any other flavor exists, let alone any other condiment. Ketchup on toast, soup, chicken, fish, vegetables, fruit, beans, meat pies, pancakes, everything. You can’t go wrong with it. Yes, this is my minor ode to ketchup. 

Mostly, I think it just comes down to the food being bland. Boring. There’s no excitement. We’d have to create fun with our food, like we were five years old again:
 (Also, note the irony of the copy of Oliver Twist featuring the starved orphan boy on the cover. Deep.)

There are a few common English dishes that aren’t all that bad – they just aren’t all that great. Shepherd’s Pie and the other pastry-fillers get old quicker than the accent, every sausage has an eyebrow-lifting air that makes you question your own taste buds, the Sunday Roast feels like it could stick to the ceiling above you, and Yorkshire pudding soaks up any bit of flavor gravy might’ve had before it consumed the rest of the plate. But, that being said, fish and chips is always a good fall back. In London, it seems like no matter where you are, there exists the distinct and lingering scent of fish and chips that permeates rooms, down halls, through walls. It’s in bathrooms, classrooms, clothing stores, under tables, in parks, on the bottom of shoes. The scent sends you in a trance; you can’t not give into it. The seduction begins with one single fine plate of fish and chips, and you’re set from there.

How could this not seduce you?

In all honesty, I ate so much fish and chips that I convinced myself for a whole solid week once I came back to America that I had mercury poisoning. (Hey, it could happen.) Somehow there was solace in adding vegetables to every dish. My body would crave all the nutrients of leafy greens lost with every grease-ridden, English bite. I felt like someone could actually end up eating veggies with every meal even if they despised them their whole life. Adding a scoop of peas to a slice of fish slathered in ketchup completed a picture no artist could dream of drawing simply because all the grease deprived you of real taste. Highly seasoned potatoes seemed to make a difference as well:

The strange food phenomena continued with Heinz beans. First of all, I’ll be the first to admit that the English version of Heinz beans trumps the American version hands down. I’m not sure why they taste different, but they do. Anyway, beans became a staple dish in my previously exclusive American diet. But an odd thing began to happen. Both my American roommate and I felt like we couldn’t heat up the beans, or even put them in a bowl, like they were unspoken rules among the English. It seemed they could only be eaten out of the can with a half-crooked fork and grimaced face. Every bite of bean felt like we were rationing for WWII. If it wasn’t in a can, it was depressingly poured over a piece of toast and, again, slathered with ketchup. It actually tasted okay, but boy, did it feel like a war was going on.

By that time, if I’d already bothered to make toast with my WWII-rationed beans, I’d probably complete the full English Breakfast experience and add an egg or two. Toast, beans, eggs, salt, pepper, and ketchup for days. This meal became so regular that the thought of eating eggs today makes me nauseous. I never thought food could become so…unalive.

Now, regardless of any of that, it’s time to get real. You wanna talk food? Let’s talk food. I’ll give you two words – two of the best words to ever get together and form a loose phrase: Indian food.

Without sounding too much like all those British morons who colonized everything in sight and saw India as “the jewel of the empire,” I can’t help but think that Indian food is just so…mystical. I take a single bite of that wonderful country’s supernatural cuisine and I’m instantly warm inside. It literally fulfills me. Naan, curry sauce, tikka masaala, wine, rice, chicken, lamb, and simosas begin to form a soup of mouth-watering comfort sliding down a throat and through a nation, a time, a crevice of the heart.

Somehow, this spicy, fiery culinary knife has cut through the soul of a bland, damp island in the northern Atlantic – but how? Can the Indian food of Brick Lane pervade the hearts of simplistic, dead, bland English food? For a brief time, my American roommate and I were convinced that the English were so stern and polite and subdued because they were inherently and continually unsatisfied from food. Is this too harsh? Maybe. Maybe not. Does food fuel a nation? Where else do we get our power from, if not the food we eat? There must be a connection between the non-existence of taste in English food and over-powering kick from Indian food that bring the colonized and colonizer together. Or maybe that’s all a lie.

One thing is for certain, though, every time I wander past a curry shop or stand selling moderately adequate fish and chips back here in America, my heart twinges. Perhaps the English have learned to survive on the sweetly bitter taste of nostalgia just like me.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Transport.

The first spoken sentence of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway is “I love walking in London.” Initially, the sentence means nothing. But you take a walk or two in that city and you’ll understand the meaning behind those words.

Travel always seems to inspire us, doesn’t it? Never mind the mere existence of this blog, but I mean the everyday sort of travel, the mundane from here to there type of movement. Yeah, right, you’re probably thinking, what could be more inspiring than two hours of traffic on the 405, or three train delays on the A C E? Alright, traffic is a plate of tedious with a slice of hell, but travel is what takes you places. Literally.
Somewhere along the third or so train ride in and around London, I fell in love. That jittery feeling that enraptures the pit of your stomach when you board a train that’s seen all, been all, everywhere – I lose it. The split second before all the doors slide close and the train is just about to begin shuddering beneath your feet – that’s where the magic happens. Essentially, in that moment, you could be anywhere – in any city, any town, place, time, mind. This idea of going on a journey with a group of strangers is so thrilling that I find myself creating excuses to take a train somewhere outside the city to bring that feeling back. That little feeling almost travels itself sometimes, right off the train and into your step. How could you not carry with you the weight of knowingly moving through King’s Cross Station?

 Moving around London is like navigating an uncharted city without a written map. Each street turns and curves and twists into alleyways and streets and lanes a hundred years into the past only to turn up back in 2011 before the third streetlamp. There’s wonder in walking through this labyrinth with just the slightest bit of danger attached. You never know if you’re walking right into a trap: a place you’ve been before, or a place you’ll never seen again.

The Tube tends to have this affect as well. The Tube, properly called The Choobe, has, for some reason, become the ideal model of transport that puts everything else to shame. I don’t know why or how this started, but mastering the Tube became the equivalent of medaling at the Olympics for me. It seemed so impossible at first, but after a few visits, it was expected I’d get the gold. Everything is so clean and so bright and slick and beautiful shades of red, white, and blue flicker off streaking trains heading down darkened tunnels. Much like the rest of England, the sounds on the train are pretty minimal unless infiltrated by children (or worse, Americans), but the most pleasant fact comes in having a personal seat. It’s quite nice knowing that no one will fall asleep on your shoulder while you’re highlighting the 957th line in Middlemarch, worrying if you’ll ever remember all the characters’ names. It’s your own private space in the most un-private space imaginable that literally sinks deep into the skin and underlings of the city. It’s a time-warp of cleanliness in what should be very dirty, a polite promptness in what should be anxiety ridden. It’s a simple salutation: Mind the gap, please. Mind the gap, please. 

Those rides in the Tube started to feel very special after awhile and I’m not sure why. It brought on that same feeling of walking through the maze of streets. Perhaps there was something magical about it – and I mean magical in the Harry Potter way – like all of the staircases changing in Hogwarts when you don’t keep an eye on them. There was always this feeling that, when walking down a certain street or boarding a particular train, you might never see it again. I’d like to think I have a pretty good sense of direction, especially if I have a map, but somehow it became so easy to get lost in London, as if the city kept playing a game with me, but I didn’t know until it was my turn to roll the dice. Towards the end of my stay, given after five months, a friend and I walked out of a Tube station we’ve walked out of numerous times before and somehow managed to walk in the wrong direction for 45 minutes before realizing our mistake. It’s pretty embarrassing to know you have to be by the River, ask someone where said river is, only for them to laugh and say you’re nowhere remotely near any body of water. (Did I mention that England was an island?)

At least there’s always the comfort in knowing that, even when the streets may trick you, the trusty double-decker bus is always, always on your side. Those buses were more than simply like clockwork; those buses were clocks. New York City may boast to be The City That Never Sleeps, but not a single night went by during my time in London without a lonely traveler waiting outside my window on Woburn Place for that double-decker to show up at 2, 3, 4-whenever in the morning. And guess what? It always came. Even when London hit those odd, apocalyptic hours when you’re sure everyone’s been killed in a silent zombie attack, that bus came and picked up whoever was waiting there. Everyone rode those buses – how could you not? It’s history beneath your feet, a mere tap of the Oyster Card and you’re there. Getting that prime spot on that top deck in that first, front seat was everything in the world. At that height, you can look into the lives of passerbys without a care. There’s power and humility capturing a single seat on a single bus.

The way the Tube and buses forced you into the heart of the city, particular train rides casually brought you to another world. Trains heading out of London always seem to crawl back in time to intimate rows and rows of chimneys and houses circa 4 Privet Drive and fields that look like WWII vengefully left its mark. It makes the return to London that much more special. The walks are just the same – certain walks that leave you between times and places without you realizing it. One of the best walks I ever took was from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to the heart of Bloomsbury in the dead of a damp spring (though still very wintry) night. Imagine being suspended on the swaying, steely Millennium Bridge, hovering over the sputtering River Thames as eerie lamps light up St. Paul’s magnificent dome with nothing else but the sound of soft rain pattering against the silent city.

Interestingly enough, after reading and mocking the hundreds of years’ worth of literature about weak English characters catching a cold from opening a window or walking outside, I ended up getting pneumonia that night. After catching a glimpse of the soul of the city breathing on a chance stroll that night, I’d say it was pretty much worth it. The gap between time and space closed on that suspended bridge and it seemed as if the city was floating on itself on accident. I realize, it’s walks like that really teach me the meaning behind the words, Mind the Gap.