Reflections on London

The process of crossing over into a new year seems to put many in the mood for reminisces. This year, as in previous years, I found myself thinking about London. 2015 was the year I returned to London, after a three-year hiatus, but the journey felt very much like a dream, as if it never occurred. The London I remember is still the home I knew years ago, not the spectacle I encountered as a visitor.

In the early days of my stay in London, everything was fresh and precious. London was like nowhere else. The university seemed an interruption, and in the interstices between seminars, I rushed from museum to museum, shop to shop, with the urgency of one who was all too aware of mortality. It was impossible to stop – every day presented new opportunities and new temptations. The city was with me even in the confines of my room – first a small dorm room in Camden with a view of the ubiquitous London planetree; next an elegant Regency house in Hampstead, with a partial view of the Heath; and finally, a flat in Bloomsbury, with a view of Georgian rooftops and the BT Tower which, when seen from afar, always signaled the location of home. Those were solitary days of urban wanderings, bookshop-hopping, instant noodles and freezing winter nights. I was always conscious of my luck and privilege, as I am now conscious of the impossibility of returning to those abodes.

The London I knew was a city of words. There are scrolls of paper that run down the sides of buildings, along the columns or pinned to the doors, inscribed with the words of Londoners. On overcast, foggy days, on buildings by the Thames, we read about Dickens’s ubiquitous fog, “up the river…down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside of a great (and dirty) city.” Crossing Westminster Bridge, we read Wordsworth’s love song to the “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” of London, “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” On weekdays during rush hour, pushing past the crowd, we glimpse Eliot’s “Unreal city” inscribed on the Golden Jubilee Bridge. During the daily commute, we read Heaney’s words on the walls of the Underground, describing us, the commuters – “half straggle-ravelled and half strung/ Like a human chain”. While running errands on crowded Saturdays, we see Shelley’s lament scrawled on the greyish façades of Oxford Street: “Hell is a place much like London”. On Primrose Hill, we find Blake’s words, now engraved in stone: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”.

One walks through the streets wrapped in words. The walls are palimpsests and each generation adds new words by new Londoners. Layer upon layer of text, until nothing is decipherable.

For a period of time, I lived opposite Dickens’s old house; two minutes from Yeats; five minutes from the Shelleys’ temporary abode; two squares away from Virginia Woolf; three squares away from Eliot’s Faber office. For one year, I also stayed in the house that once belonged to the painter Paul Nash. True to my role as a bibliophile, I frequented bookshops new and old, and compiled my own catalogue of literary spots. That was one of the best parts about living in such a city, the cultivating of pleasant associations with spots in the metropolis. In London I understood the power of psychogeography, the ways in which places trigger something in the mind. Spots became sacred for their connection with beloved writers and artists. Visits to churches and graveyards became pseudo-pilgrimages. London was thus, for a time, a place of love.

There are places to which it is impossible to return, places barred by impenetrable walls of immigration policies, walls built higher and higher each year; places that have changed beyond recognition; places that have sunk beneath the weight of memory. I have always known that London, like some mythic destination, was a place I would lose as soon as I left. In my final months in the city, right before the London Olympics, I took in the city with a kind of frenzy or hunger, like one who did not have long to live. The photos from those months are still unsorted. It is difficult to think about London, or write about it, even though I continually attempt to do so. The city is irrepressible, even as I try to evade its control of my imagination.

After my departure from London (and after failed attempts to apply for another visa), I came to the despairing realization that not only can I not return to London, I do not belong there, have never belonged there; that this city, grand, literary and inspiring, belongs to others; that the words which have guided me for so long have never been intended for one such as I, an outsider, foreigner, alien. The city is not mine, and its narratives – contemporary or past – will never be mine. To whom does London belong? That is a question for another time.

Vestiges of London are always with me – in the hundreds of books on the shelves; in the clothes collected from the shops I frequented; the postcards on the walls; the book bags that can only be found at Daunt Books. Perhaps it is there in the words I write, or perhaps the writing is an ongoing attempt to reclaim a place that has never been there, a place to which it is impossible to return.

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On Being a Bibliophile

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After coming across a 2012 article by Julian Barnes, on life as a bibliophile, I felt compelled to record my own memories of book collecting and bibliophilia. I came to book collecting at a rather late age, sometime in my teens. Before that point, I had relied on library copies, none of which I can recall clearly, except for the copies of the adventures of Arsene Lupin, those yellow paperbacks that are now long gone; I always thought Lupin was much more brilliant than his rival, Sherlock Holmes. But sometime during my early teens, the local library in Vancouver began having these secondhand books sales, twice a year, in April and September. There, my bibliophilia bloomed. I discovered all sorts of vintage paperbacks and folio editions bound in leather, with embossed covers, all for incredibly cheap prices (no more than $3 each). There was an 1850 edition of poetry by Elizabeth Cook, whom I had never heard of; a collection of palm-sized, cream-coloured copies of Jane Austen’s works, from the early 1900s; a late 1800 copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I can’t really read, because it’s so fragile. Before the days of book recommendation sites, these book sales were a fantastic way of learning about new titles or authors. So, I would go to the book sales with empty cardboard boxes and come back home with the boxes overflowing with precious finds. For the first time, I saw books not only as companions or sources of delight and knowledge, but beautiful objects to be coveted. Gone were the days of those Wordsworth editions (though I still keep those). It’s safe to say that soon, most of my allowance was spent on books; similarly, a bulk of my salary nowadays is dedicated to the cultivation of my bibliophilia.

It’s not unusual for people in the humanities, or academia more generally, to be obsessed with books. In fact, it’s probably a stereotype, one that I was happy to perpetuate. I became attached to certain copies and tried to hunt down out-of-print editions. These were not editions that were rare due to monetary value, but editions with specific cover designs or editions with which I associate certain memories. For example, for years I hunted for my own copies of a series of E. M. Forster’s complete works (published by the Quality Paperback Book Club of New York), simply because those editions were the ones I had used in the school library when I first encountered Forster; re-reading A Room with a View would not be the same without Corot’s picture of Florence on the cover and the familiar font on the pages. As Barnes writes, ‘To own a certain book – one you had chosen yourself – was to define yourself.’

During the early days of my book collecting, I was very careful with each volume, taking care not to crease the covers or bend the spines. But as my collecting progressed, I began to appreciate these signs of wear and tear; they were evidence of a book having been read, vestiges of the mornings spent in the company of that particular copy. This all probably sounds a bit obsessive, but as Benjamin suggests in his seminal essay, there’s very little that’s not obsessive about the collector.

My bibliophilia reached its heights during my years in London – predictably, given the many treasure troves that London has to offer the bibliophile. I roamed every secondhand book depository, from the basements at Charing Cross to the South Bank bookstall. I became particularly fond of vintage Penguin paperbacks, which were very accessible at £2 each – it’s very difficult to resist judging a book by its cover when I came across these lovely little volumes. I once had the great privilege of browsing through the private storage room of Skoob Books in Bloomsbury (they have the friendliest staff out of all the bookstores I’ve frequented), and found a few of the earliest Penguins. It was also there that I learned how stickers and other ephemera stuck on paperbacks, such as the half-torn tag on Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia (below), make the book more valuable to collectors.

Ephemera became one of my top reasons for visiting secondhand bookshops – the Waterstone’s on Gower Street in Bloomsbury was a particularly bountiful shop in this regard, as many of the books in its secondhand section come stuffed with old ticket stubs, random notes from the 1960s, publisher’s notifications etc. These fragile pieces of paper are surprisingly among my most prized possessions. Their scent of time and their ephemerality are precisely what make them so alluring (the subject of another post). I once learned from the staff at Waterstone’s that an elderly gentleman would go into the shop every fortnight to hunt for vintage train tickets, and eventually the staff joined in the hunt and collected his tickets for him as soon as the new shipments came in. But one day he stopped coming into the shop, and they wondered what had happened to him.

Years of bookshop hopping have brought me some wonderful finds, such as a 12-volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I found in one of my favourite bookshops outside London – G. David in Cambridge, the old haunt of many writers including Forster and Virginia Woolf. Other great finds (some rather costly) include a Baedecker of Northern Italy from 1899 (which is kept next to the Forster); a remarkable atlas from 1932, when national boundaries were slightly different in various regions; first edition Faber pamphlets of ‘East Coker’ & ‘Little Gidding’ (I have yet to find the other two of the Four Quartets); and the 1832 Heath’s Picturesque Annual, my only book from the Romantic era. The collection will continue to grow. Each book collected defines a period in life as much as the books read during that period, and as such they are the best markers of time.

No Kindle, no matter how comprehensive or practical, can replace these individually selected volumes, carefully inscribed with the date and place of purchase. Unlike the eternally brand new Kindle edition that will never show any signs of age, these books have been passed down the generations, forming an invisible community of readers that have loved or hated the book, extracted wisdom from its pages or misunderstood its complexity. The underlined sentences and marginalia attest to the reading process in a way that electronic highlights cannot. Few activities are more intrinsically human than the reading of a book, for it is through books that human beings have first come to understand self and others.

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The March of Intellect

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While searching through the archives for nineteenth-century satirical prints, I stumbled upon this fantastic image produced by Robert Seymour. It’s a satire against corruption, depicting an giant automaton that represents the London University (later University College London, my alma mater!), sweeping aside corrupt lawyers, greedy clerics and the disappointing crown. Part of a longer series entitled The March of Intellect, or the March of the Mind (done by William Heath, largely satirizing the notion of rationalist progress), this particular caricature points to the radical founding of the London University in 1826, the first institution in England to provide education to anyone regardless of race, sex, class or religion (including Jews, Catholics and non-Anglicans). This was considered radical educational reform at a time when membership in the Church of England and a considerable sum of money were required for entry into Oxford or Cambridge.

The idea of the university was inspired by the philosophy of Jeremy Bentham, who promoted wider access to higher education (and Bentham’s surreal Auto-Icon now sits in the South Cloisters of the main university building). Founded by the Whig politician and reformer, Henry Brougham, the London University was also later associated with the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (wittily nicknamed the Steam Intellect Society by Thomas Love Peacock), which promoted the expansion of education to all classes. By using widely-distributed cheap publications (thin pamphlets on various scientific subjects or practical matters), the SDUK ‘offered education self-help to the masses in the years before universal schooling’. The Society also had a Library of Useful Knowledge, a Library of Entertaining Knowledge, and the widely popular Penny Magazine. Though attacked by Tories and those associated with the Church, and satirized by caricaturists (as in the image above), both the London University and the SDUK opened up higher education and contributed to the nineteenth-century reforms to which we are all indebted. Three cheers for the March of Intellect!

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