Beauty in a Dense Urban Fabric
NOSTALGIA sometimes takes two tracks. It can bring smiles or tears of some happy time conjured up in the mind, edited for comfort with all the sharp edges removed, leaving only cheery content of our bygone times. But it can also leave one with a desperate unfullfilled yearning, like an argument with a lost friend that was never resolved.
Of all the things that I missed when I emigrated to the United States it was my beloved city of London. It was the London of grimy, gritty streets, of faded Victorian grandeur, and a harlequin of social levels. My nostalgia (the negative variety) for my birthplace reached its peak in the '60s. Not only did I miss London the most during that time, but events in the United States seemed only to serve my contention that London was the only place worth living in.
Over the years, this yearning has abated somewhat. But last Christmas, I decided to go back and see just how much of the London that I knew still existed.
The London I sought was not that London of the tourist or travel agency. I knew that Tower Bridge, the Houses of Parliament, and Buckingham Palace were still there. I knew that London's distinctive red double-decker buses still ran, and that the British still drove on the left.
What I looked for was the London of the ordinary person, the working, bustling London that was so much the backdrop to my childhood. I returned to look for the period set against a background which was largely shabby and ravaged, full of bomb sites and dereliction, and yet which was somehow authentic, vital, and tough. It was a London where no high buildings spoiled the Westminster and city skyline; cars were always black; there were no plastic signs, and Georgian terraces were properly grimy with dark-painted woodwork unimproved by middle-class tastes. It was a London which I knew very well as a child; hauntingly beautiful in its own way. Did it still exist?
I started to look for this past in the street where I spent most of my childhood. The street was still there, but it had been ``gentrified.'' Trees had been planted on the narrow pavement, now full grown and pressing against the cleanup brickwork of the small terraced houses. Newly created citizens of Britain had stuccoed and painted those once staid and dispassionate dwellings with a variety of exotic colors and styles. It was exciting and brought color to a once-quiet street, but it was not the London I was looking for.
I found it around Kings Cross station. Here is an area that has received only the most cosmetic of change since Victorian times. Here, surely, I could find what I was looking for. It was from Kings Cross station that I was first evacuated from Hitler's bombs.
It was a Kings Cross train that took me to the moors of Yorkshire for my military service, and it was from Cubitt's once yellow-bricked station with its grand proportions and twin train sheds that I traveled to Welwyn Garden City, courting my first wife.
Now I was finding the London that I knew so well as a child. The late Georgian atmosphere is still much in evidence, a pattern of ordinary, shabby brick terraced houses which are the real stuff of London. It was into this dense urban fabric that the Victorians, with the typical ruthlessness of American interstate highway builders, cut their railways. Here among the Victorian weft and woof of brick and cobblestone, the Great Northern and Midland railways thrust their main line termini.
It is this contrast, this contest of styles that makes the area exciting and dramatic: the abrupt change in scale between ordinary London streets and two of the greatest monuments of the Railway Age. But the wonderful thing was that hardly anything had changed. It was a living, breathing museum of sorts, full of people and traffic and everyday life.
Here was the junction of Pentonville Road and Grays Inn Road, anchored by London's version of a ``flatiron'' building, with its tottering fake minaret. Here, too, were the old shops, their unflinching Victorian fa,cades punctured by modern plastic panels of hamburger chains and ethnic variety stores.
I walked up Pentonville Road for a short distance. I wanted to see if the vista from John O'Connor's famous 1884 painting, ``St. Pancras at Sunset,'' was still there. It was, although marred by a plethora of boxy modern buildings. But the basic view down the Pentonville Road, stoppered by the outline of the monster railway terminus, remained intact.
And somehow this whole area has largely survived slum-clearance, wartime bombing, and postwar planning. I am certain that is why, in the early '50s, Ealing Studios chose the King's Cross locale as the real-life setting for that wonderful, gently funny film, ``The Ladykillers.''
I returned to Kings Cross again, but this time I headed to the area north. I remembered this as a vast area filled with smoke and the screech of railway engines' whistles. In this weird, exotic domain, I remember watching endless trains of potatoes from Lincolnshire, coal from Nottingham, milk from the Midlands, and wool from Lancashire entering the huge goods yard - one of dozens serving the capital. The surreal desolation of the Victorian railway landscape was still there, but the activity wasn't.
I began to feel like the prodigal son returning to his father's house. I had gone to live the life of a higher standard, in comfortable, wealthy America and found something wanting. I felt that, in some way, I had spent my heritage of Victorian outlines, Gothic spires, and industrial gasholders; of streets where front doors met those passing by on the sidewalk; of social architecture and of empirical enterprise.
I wandered along the banks of the Grand Union canal, its fittings of locks and wharfs still intact. I stood by the Great Northern's granary building, remembering the shouts of laborers and the shrill locomotive whistles. It was silent now, but that once-painful nostalgia now stood me in good stead, and I was able to fill in the blank spaces of the desolation with commercial activity and human life.
Here, the grain and topography of this complex and historical area - criss-crossed by canals, railways, and black-sooted tunnels, and full of coal drops and warehouses that still contained the smell of spices and exotic goods - had a strange beauty.
This might seem inexcusable nostalgia, but derelict urban landscapes can have an incredible aura. The late Ian Nairn appreciated this when he wrote in his book ``Ian Nairn's London'': ``The whole of this place at the back of [Kings Cross] is incredibly moving: tunnels, perspectives, trains on the skyline, roads going allways. If you get nothing from it at first, stay there until something happens: it is really worth the effort.''
That's exactly what was happening to me. As I stood there in that no-man's-land of industrial atrophy, something was happening. I realized now that my memories of London became a mental malady for me because I tried to constantly compare it with something else - with New York, or the Boston subway, or the San Francisco topography. It doesn't work that way. Just like each person, cities and places grow according to their own circumstances and their own histories.
CITIES have individualities too. And as with human beings, our memories of them are what we want to remember, what we appreciate about them that influenced us. We recall what set our values for a lifetime and remember with affection and warmth, not with a sense of loss or penalty.
You see, part of the problem was that I thought that my nostalgic memories of London had to be soft and sentimental. Now I know that its survival from the planner and the idealist, from grand gestures and centralization, is part of its real character.
I had gotten all I could from old movies, books, and reminiscences with friends. Now I knew that I had to see it in a way that only the years could add to, with fresh eyes.
If the sentimentality has gone, perhaps some regret has remained. Regret that this industrial wilderness I have rediscovered for myself will be replaced by something that, when its own time comes to be replaced, will be remembered with as much affection and tenderness as I have for this grainy, cockney city within a city.
When I returned to America I knew that if I never went back again, I would remember my part of London as I should remember it - as one remembers an old friend. After all these years, only the good remains. Like James McNeil Whistler, I see that ``... the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens....''