I went to
learn a little English and to see dead people. This city originated
much of the English language. London place names have become words,
such as bedlam, billingsgate, Soho, and the clink. Though many cities
worldwide now have a Soho – artsy, bohemian imitations of the
London archetype – the original was named for a hunting call. On
downing a bird, a hunter would call out soho! to release the
dogs. The fields, woods and marshes in the gap between London proper
and the royal “village” of Westminster – in what's now an urban
setting – were a favorite of sporting kings such as Henry
dead people, I walked Greenwich, Chelsea, Soho,
Mayfair, Hampstead, Highgate, Westminster, Southwark and the City. I
found a few – Thomas More, Johnson and Jonson, two Shakespeares (a
brother followed him to London), George Orwell, Aldous Huxley...
you tell a Brit you're over there to see history, you sometimes get a
cool reception, best interpreted as "You wanted your own
country, now get your own heritage." But the guide for a walk
called Westminster at War said to the American participants, "Welcome
home." Rather mixed feelings, don't you think? I told him my dad
landed in Normandy.
I walked past
the cemetery in Highgate where
Karl Marx is buried. The gate keeper charges three pounds to get in.
I told her that I'd had my fill of dead people for one day, that
"you've got quite a few of them over here, you know." I
could have walked in to confirm that he's still dead, but didn't.
Three quid to see Marx? That's a little ironic, but not as ironic as
Marx getting evicted from a flat in Chelsea (a social-climbing,
upwardly mobile Marx?).
It might sound
a little dysfunctional
going there just to see dead people, as most of them already know
that they're dead. However, I noticed a few live ones too. I visited
an Oxford-educated, retired chemistry prof with whom I discussed the
history of science. I also mixed it up with a “mixed” couple in
Petersfield (he's a Brit, she's from the Bronx). And I witnessed the
government almost collapse while I was there – entertaining.
I consider it
self-evident that not all dead folks are created equal. Some are more
significant than their peers – more posthumously influential.
Shakespeare is more equal than others. He's the source of much that
became cliché, though as clichés go, his are more interesting than
most. And Shakespearian expressions can always be freshened up. Something's rotten in Denmark, and I think
it's the cheese. Absinthe
makes the sight grow dimmer. A rose by any other name will be marked
wrong on the Botany exam. Discretion is the better part of truth.
the row houses of Chelsea, I considered that Marx had some effect.
Though he was explicit about violence or its potential in his theory
of class succession, implying that a riot is a form of collective
bargaining, Marx isn't responsible for Stalin any more than Adam
Smith is responsible for the recent bank bailouts. While walking
Bloomsbury, I noted that the 1930's era Senate House makes an
excellent icon for totalitarianism. Eric Blair worked there during
the Second World War when it housed the Ministry of Information,
changing it to the Ministry of Truth for 1984, and making himself
into George Orwell.
For all the
historical individuals I could list, the city itself seems to be a
major player – the faceless, amorphous mass of people. When the
Romans founded Londinium 2,000 years ago, a number of cities far to
the east had already been around for well over 2,000 years. However,
in the Western European tradition, London was the first modern
metropolis. This calls into question just what we mean by modern. By
one definition, it means current – of the present era. This
definition is wholly inadequate, as it could not be applied to
England in the year 700. Modern means urban, industrial, vocationally
specialized – using technologies for communication and conveyance
that remove traditional barriers of space and time. Things happened
here first – the first omnibus, the first underground railroad, the
first police force – as well as the first insane asylum, or need
for one. Which brings us back to that faceless mass.
In spite of
and plague, London's population almost tripled during the 17th
century, reaching 550,000 by the year 1700. It approached a million
in 1800, but then increased 6 times over the next century. Throughout
most of this time, the number of deaths far exceeded the number of
births in this town, meaning that immigration from the countryside
fueled its growth. Few in its poorest classes lived into their 30's.
The dominant, defining characteristic of modernizing London was its
grinding, brutalizing poverty. Country folk went to London for the
opportunities. Compared to the restrictions of small-town England,
compared to what Marx called the idiocy of country life, stadtluft
macht frei. But if city air made one free, it made a few other
things as well.
force, yes – and the first serial killers in the modern sense. From
centuries ago, on several continents, some aristocratic individuals
have been sufficiently powerful to transcend the law, murdering
people sometimes in the hundreds for sport or deep psychological
need. But London spawned the first serial killers in an urban
setting, hiding in the anonymity of the crowd, with the events
exploited by a sensationalist press. This was something new.
pioneered a new form of class-based sympathy for criminals. A cockney
named Jack Sheppard became famous as an escape artist. Though a
common thief, he displayed on several occasions an uncommon ability
to get out of Newgate Prison. At the height of his fame, street
urchins were more likely to know his name than that of Jesus Christ.
end, I walked past a pub called the Crown and Dolphin. This was in
Whitechapel, at the corner of Cannon and Cable Streets. This pub
enshrines a skull, that of accused murderer John Williams. He was
suspected of murdering multiple people in what was called the
Ratcliffe Highway Murders. As a member of the underclass, he knew he
hadn't a chance against judge and jury. He hanged himself in his cell
rather than prolong the agony. The authorities, deprived of the usual
spectacle of a public hanging, determined that his soul should have
no rest, put a stake through his heart, and buried him under one of
the busiest east-end intersections. When maintenance workers
discovered them, fellow Cockneys disseminated his bones throughout
the city, much as relics of the true cross.