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A wordsmith's pilgrimage in London

By Ruth Walker / September 17, 2004



I'm just back from a few days in London, pleased to have confirmed that I am not at all - as the saying goes - tired of life. What a relief.

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I refuse, by the way, to let the exclusive masculinity of Samuel Johnson's language get in the way of my appreciation of his accomplishments. I choose to interpret his references to "a man" to mean simply "a person" - myself, for example.

"Sir," I hope I would say to him if I could, "women are more than half the human race: Get over it. To a degree you would find unfathomable, sir, wordsmithing nowadays is women's work, too." I spent a few hours walking in the footsteps of another great London wordsmith, Charles Dickens.

Dickens knew a thing or two about verbal energy. I've been appreciating more in recent years his vast range, his capacity for combining tragedy and comedy, his social engagement. He was a human intersection of the worlds of law and of letters - the onetime law clerk turned parliamentary reporter turned novelist.

The streets I explored - around the Inns of Court, Fleet Street, and the Old Bailey - are what that intersection of law and letters looks like as a neighborhood. This was Dickens's laboratory for the observation of humanity as he followed, wittingly or otherwise, Dr. Johnson's advice to his biographer, James Boswell, that he explore the "little lanes and courts" of London to discover its "wonderful immensity."

This part of London is also the intersection between the word printed by a press and the Word preached from the pulpit. The Reformation was a religious revolution fueled by a printing revolution.

Until it was destroyed during World War II, the area just north of St. Paul's Cathedral was a center of the book trades from the late 18th century. Here one recalls that a group of compositors was traditionally known as a "chapel." (A compositor was a typesetter back in the days when that term referred to a person rather than a machine.)

St. Paul's Cathedral survived the Blitz largely intact, but much of its immediate neighborhood did not. St. Paul's Churchyard, full of Londoners making it their outdoor parlor on a late summer afternoon, is as lovely a construct of cool stone and green lawn and raking golden sunlight as one is likely to see on this earth. But the postwar reconstruction in the adjacent streets was heavy on concrete and reflected an unfortunate concept of modernity.

That, happily, is now being remedied, albeit slowly. As part of the new construction, the Temple Bar (the ceremonial gateway that once separated the Strand, in the royal City of Westminster, from Fleet Street, in the City of London) is to be moved into the renovated Paternoster Square, next to the cathedral.

The announcement imparting this intelligence (posted on a bulletin board) included, alas, a couple of apostrophe errors ("Artists impression of the Temple Bar after it's relocation to Paternoster Square"), which a Punctuation Guerrilla had already corrected with a black marker, thereby sparing me the need to take action myself.

This part of London is where one is particularly conscious of being in the hometown of the English language. St. Paul's Cathedral is proverbially the "Paul" whom "Peter" (the Abbey Church of St. Peter in Westminster, subsequently Westminster Abbey) was robbed to pay: The story is a bit too pat for Merriam-Webster, but the abbey's own website includes it as fact.

All right, feelings may still be a bit sore even after a few centuries - but in what other city could the claim even be made?

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