Tag Archives: London

Arthur Machen’s The Imposters

The Three ImpostorsIt was a fine autumn evening, and a faint sunlight shone on the yellow walls of the old deserted house, and showed the patches of gangrenous decay, and all the stains, the black drift of rain from the broken pipes, the scabrous blots where the bare bricks were exposed, the green weeping of a gaunt laburnum that stood beside the porch, and ragged marks near the ground where the reeking clay was gaining on the worn foundations. It was a queer rambling old place, the centre perhaps two hundred years old, with dormer windows sloping from the tiled roof, and on each side there were Georgian wings; bow windows had been carried up to the first floor, and two dome-like cupolas that had once been painted a bright green were now gray and neutral. Broken urns lay upon the path, and a heavy mist seemed to rise from the unctuous clay; the neglected shrubberies, grown all tangled and unshapen, smelt dank and evil, and there was an atmosphere all about the deserted mansion that proposed thoughts of an opened grave.

What is not to love about such gothic prose? Arthus Machen’s The Imposters is quite splendid all round, not least because Machen does not lack a sharp edge to him. On Dyson and Phillips he writes:

By the mistaken benevolence of deceased relatives both young men were placed out of reach of hunger, and so, meditating high achievements, idled their time pleasantly away, and revelled in the careless joys of a Bohemianism devoid of the sharp seasoning of adversity.

What I loved most about the book though, was how it moved between city streets and country villages in ways such books rarely do, but people do all the time. It moves from haunted ruins in deep countryside to London carrying the same atmosphere but now describing streets I know. Though of course, this is not as I know them, the gibbet-like contrivances and pantechnicon warehouses are all gone …

I went out and wandered rather aimlessly about the streets; my head was full of my tale, and I didn’t much notice where I was going. I got into those quiet places to the north of Oxford Street as you go west, the genteel residential neighborhood of stucco and prosperity. I turned east again without knowing it, and it was quite dark when I passed along a sombre little by-street, ill lighted and empty. I did not know at the time in the least where I was, but I found out afterwards that it was not very far from Tottenham Court Road. I strolled idly along, enjoying the stillness; on one side there seemed to be the back premises of some great shop; tier after tier of dusty windows lifted up into the night, with gibbet-like contrivances for raising heavy goods, and below large doors, fast closed and bolted, all dark and desolate. Then there came a huge pantechnicon warehouse; and over the way a grim blank wall, as forbidding as the wall of a jail, and then the headquarters of some volunteer regiment, and afterwards a passage leading to a court where wagons were standing to be hired. It was, one might almost say, a street devoid of inhabitants, and scarce a window showed the glimmer of a light. I was wondering at the strange peace and dimness there, where it must be close to some roaring main artery of London life, when suddenly I heard the noise of dashing feet tearing along the pavement at full speed, and from a narrow passage, a mews or something of that kind, a man was discharged as from a catapult under my very nose

And this…this is what all of long for sometimes is it not? For the strange, the weird, to irrupt into the daily humdrum:

“It is all more strange than I fancied,” he said at last. “It was queer enough what I saw; a man is sauntering along a quiet, sober, every-day London street, a street of gray houses and blank walls, and there, for a moment, a veil seems drawn aside, and the very fume of the pit steams up through the flagstones, the ground glows, red hot, beneath his feet, and he seems to hear the hiss of the infernal caldron. A man flying in mad terror for his life…

It seems ever harder now for this to happen, London of Machen’s time seems to lend itself to such possibilities much easier. Perhaps though, as Raymond Williams writes, each generation turns from the ugliness and meanness of the present towards a nostalgia of the past. But some things don’t seem to change, it is still true that almost everyone comes to London at some point — and if not London, then the big city near their town or village. Youth from all over the country come to be part of the action, to remake themselves, become something they can’t become within the confines of small tight communities.

I felt that there was nothing for me to do in the country, and as usually happens in such eases, London drew me like a magnet. One day in August, in the early morning, while the dew still glittered on the turf, and on the high green banks of the lane, a neighbor drove me to the railway station, and I bade good-bye to the land of the broad moors and unearthly battlements of the wild tors. It was six o’clock as we neared London; the faint sickly fume of the brickfields about Acton came in puffs through the open window, and a mist was rising from the ground. Presently the brief view of successive streets, prim and uniform, struck me with a sense of monotony; the hot air seemed to grow hotter; and when we had rolled beneath the dismal and squalid houses, whose dirty and neglected back yards border the line near Paddington, I felt as if I should be stifled in this fainting breath of London. I got a hansom and drove off, and every street increased my gloom; gray houses with blinds drawn down, whole thoroughfares almost desolate, and the foot-passengers who seemed to stagger wearily along rather than walk, all made me feel a sinking at heart. I put up for the night at a small hotel in a street leading from the Strand, where my father had stayed on his few brief visits to town; and when I went out after dinner, the real gayety and bustle of the Strand and Fleet Street could cheer me but little, for in all this great city there was no single human being whom I could claim even as an acquaintance.

For all its lure, there is something lost. There are desires unfulfilled, hopes destroyed, lives that never reached their promise.

It takes a long time to know it, much less achieve anything there.

“You were wrong to give in so completely,” he said, when I was silent. “A month is too short a time in which to feel one’s way in London. London, let me tell you, Miss Lally, does not lie open and undefended; it is a fortified place, fossed and double-moated with curious intricacies. As must always happen in large towns, the conditions of life have become hugely artificial; no mere simple palisade is run up to oppose the man or woman who would take the place by storm, but serried lines of subtle contrivances, mines, and pitfalls which it needs a strange skill to overcome. You, in your simplicity, fancied you had only to shout for these walls to sink into nothingness, but the time is gone for such startling victories as these. Take courage; you will learn the secret of success before very long.”

Machen does not just sharpen his wit on Dyson and Phillips, but on London’s monotony and mean streets as well, never losing sight of this veil of gothic prose and imaginings that he is pulling over it.

I also love this dig at Paris, and it resonates entirely with what I felt while there, under that veil there really is something after all…

“I see you can find the picturesque in London,” he said. “To me this great town is as I see it is to you, the study and the love of life. Yet how few there are that can pierce the veils of apparent monotony and meanness! I have read in a paper which is said to have the largest circulation in the world, a comparison between the aspects of London and Paris, a comparison which should be positively laureat, as the great masterpiece of fatuous stupidity. Conceive if you can a human being of ordinary intelligence preferring the Boulevards to our London streets; imagine a man calling for the wholesale destruction of our most charming city, in order that the dull uniformity of that whited sepulchre called Paris should be reproduced here in London. Is it not positively incredible?” … They had lingered at the corner of a street on the north side of the Strand, enjoying the contrasts and the glamour of the scene. Dyson pointed the way with a gesture, and they strolled up the comparatively deserted streets, slanting a little to the right, and thus arriving at Dyson’s lodging on the verge of Bloomsbury. Mr. Burton took a comfortable armchair by the open window, while Dyson lit the candles and produced the whiskey and soda and cigarettes.

And this paean to a suburb? This evocation of phantasy and gothic horror in such surroundings left by everyone else to everyday staid graspings after economic prosperity and their meanness?  The chance happening of adventure here? Happiness.

Nay, I will say that he who has stood in the ways of a suburb
and has seen them stretch before him all shining, void, and desolate at noonday, has not lived in vain. Such a sight is in reality more wonderful than any perspective of Bagdad or Grand Cairo. And, to set on one side the entertaining history of the gem which you told me, surely you must have had many singular adventures in your own career?”

Before me was the long suburban street, its dreary distance marked by rows of twinkling lamps, and the air was poisoned by the faint sickly smell of burning bricks; it was not a cheerful prospect by any means, and I had to walk through nine miles of such streets, deserted as those of Pompeii. I knew pretty well what direction to take; so I set out wearily, looking at the stretch of lamps vanishing in perspective; and as I walked, street after street branched off to right and left,–some far reaching to distances that seemed endless, communicating with, other systems of thoroughfare; and some mere protoplasmic streets, beginning in orderly fashion with serried two-storied houses, and ending suddenly in waste, and pits, and rubbish heaps, and fields whence the magic had departed. I have spoken of systems of thoroughfare, and I assure you that, walking alone through these silent places, I felt phantasy growing on me, and some glamour of the infinite. There was here. I felt, an immensity as in the outer void, of the universe. I passed from unknown to unknown, my way marked by lamps like stars, and on either band was an unknown world where myriads of men dwelt and slept, street leading into street, as it seemed to world’s end. At first the road by which I was travelling was lined with houses of unutterable monotony,–a wall of gray brick pierced by two stories of windows, drawn close to the very pavement. But by degrees I noticed an improvement: there were gardens, and these grew larger. The suburban builder began to allow himself a wider scope; and for a certain distance each flight of steps was guarded by twin lions of plaster, and scents of flowers prevailed over the fume of heated bricks. The road began to climb a hill, and, looking up a side street, I saw the half moon rise over plane-trees, and there on the other side was as if a white cloud had fallen, and the air around it was sweetened as with incense; it was a may-tree in full bloom. I pressed on stubbornly, listening for the wheels and the clatter of some belated hansom; but into that land of men who go to the city in the morning and return in the evening, the hansom rarely enters, and I had resigned myself once more to the walk, when I suddenly became aware that some one was advancing to meet me along the sidewalk. The man was strolling rather aimlessly; and though the time and the place would have allowed an unconventional style of dress, he was vested in the ordinary frock coat, black tie, and silk hat of civilization.

I did love The London Adventure, but this to me stands hands above it, both in terms of page-turning story but also psychogeographic evocations of the city, and these — the places we find for ourselves in our cities where it is not quite so mean or uniform, where gardens and fragrances can cheer us though poverty:

Amongst the many friends who were favored with the occasional pleasure of Mr. Dyson’s society was Mr. Edgar Russell, realist and obscure struggler, who occupied a small back room on the second floor of a house in Abingdon Grove, Notting Hill. Turning off from the main street and walking a few paces onward, one was conscious of a certain calm, a drowsy peace, which made the feet inclined to loiter; and this was ever the atmosphere of Abingdon Grove. The houses stood a little back, with gardens where the lilac and laburnum and blood-red may blossomed gayly in their seasons, and there was a corner where an older house in another street had managed to keep a back garden of real extent; a walled-in garden whence there came a pleasant scent of greenness after the rains
of early summer, where old elms held memories of the open fields, where there was yet sweet grass to walk on. The houses in Abingdon Grove belonged chiefly to the nondescript stucco period of thirty-five years ago, tolerably built with passable accommodation for moderate incomes; they had largely passed into the state of lodgings, and cards bearing the inscription “Furnished Apartments” were not infrequent over the doors. Here, then, in a house of sufficiently good appearance, Mr. Russell had established himself; for he looked upon the traditional dirt and squalor of Grub Street as a false and obsolete convention, and preferred, as he said, to live within sight of green leaves. Indeed, from his room one had a magnificent view of a long line of gardens, and a screen of poplars shut out the melancholy back premises of Wilton Street during the summer months. Mr. Russell lived chiefly on bread and tea, for his means were of the smallest; but when Dyson came to see him, he would send out the slavey for six-ale, and Dyson was always at liberty to smoke as much of his own tobacco as he pleased.

What better way to grasp the feeling of a London still being built into the form we know today, the feeling of wandering through them in the night, the sights and sounds of the local pub, the mystery of moving from high to low, grace to squalor, darkness to light:

He had turned, without taking note, to the northward, and was passing through an ancient fallen street, where now notices of floors and offices to let hung out, but still about it there was the grace and the stiffness of the Age of Wigs; a broad roadway, a broad pavement, and on each side a grave line of houses with long and narrow windows flush with the walls, all of mellowed brick-work. Dyson walked with quick steps, as he resolved that short work must be made of a certain episode; but he was in that happy humor of invention, and another chapter rose in the inner chamber of his brain, and he dwelt on the circumstances he was to write down with curious pleasure. It was charming to have the quiet streets to walk in, and in his thought he made a whole district the cabinet of his studies, and vowed he would come again. Heedless of his course, he struck off to the east again, and soon found himself involved in a squalid network of gray two-storied houses, and then in the waste
void and elements of brick-work, the passages and unmade roads behind great factory walls, encumbered with the refuse of the neighborhood, forlorn, ill-lighted, and desperate. A brief turn, and there rose before him the unexpected, a hill suddenly lifted from the level ground, its steep ascent marked by the lighted lamps, and eager as an explorer Dyson found his way to the place, wondering where his crooked paths had brought him. Here all was again decorous, but hideous in the extreme. The builder, some one lost in the deep gloom of the early ‘twenties, had conceived the idea of twin villas in gray brick, shaped in a manner to recall the outlines of the Parthenon, each with its classic form broadly marked with raised bands of stucco. The name of the street was all strange, and for a further surprise, the top of the hill was crowned with an irregular plot of grass and fading trees, called a square, and here again the Parthenon-motive had persisted. Beyond the streets were curious, wild in their irregularities, here a row of sordid, dingy dwellings, dirty and disreputable in appearance, and there, without warning, stood a house genteel and prim with wire blinds and brazen knocker, as clean and trim as if it had been the doctor’s house in some benighted little country town. These surprises and discoveries began to exhaust Dyson, and he hailed with delight the blazing windows of a public-house, and went in with the intention of testing the beverage provided for the dwellers in this region, as remote as Libya and Pamphylia and the parts about Mesopotamia. The babble of voices from within warned him that he was about to assist at the true parliament of the London workman, and he looked about him for that more retired entrance called private. When he had settled himself on an exiguous bench, and had ordered some beer, he began to listen to the jangling talk in the public bar beyond; it was a senseless argument, alternately furious and maudlin, with appeals to Bill and Tom, and mediæval survivals of speech, words that Chaucer wrote belched out with zeal and relish, and the din of pots jerked down and coppers rapped smartly on the zinc counter made a thorough bass for it all.

This sums up so many of my own walks in a way: ‘…he made a whole district the cabinet of his studies, and vowed he would come again…’ I wish Arthur Machen had made more money, had not inhabited this shadowy place of Grub Street writers, had been able to write more of what he wanted to write. But perhaps then I would not have loved it quite so much. He tries to escape with us the dirt and dreary realities of the city, the hackwork. I think he succeeds here.

But we both of us know all that we are escaping is still there.

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The Tiger in the Smoke

13497413213_cbb7377327_bI had forgotten just how much I liked Margery Allingham’s writing, though not how much I enjoyed her stories. As always, the class accents trouble me, but Campion is more a mockery of Sayers’ Lord Peter Whimsey (though I confess I enjoy those too) and these books are rather more self-aware of their station.

I am sad that Lugg has been reduced to nanny in this, but Allingham is such a marvelous observer of detail, look at these  descriptions of London in a pea souper:

The fog was like a saffron blanket soaked in ice-water. It had hung over London all day and at last was beginning to descend. the sky was yellow as a duster and the rest was a granular black, overprinted in grey and lightened by occasional slivers of bright fish colour as a policeman turned in his wet cape.

Already the traffic was at an irritable crawl. By dusk it would be stationary. To the west the Park dripped wretchedly and to the north the great railway terminus slammed and banged and exploded hollowly about its affairs. Between lay winding miles of butter-coloured stucco in every conceivable state of repair. (9)

And this, a poem to Paddington Station, so different from the one I know:

The fog was thickening and the glass and iron roof was lost in its greasy drapery. The yellow lights achieved but a shabby brilliance and only the occasional plumes of steam from the locomotives were clean in the gloom. That tremendous air of suppressed excitement which is peculiar to all great railway stations was intensified by the mist, and all the noises were muffled by it and made more hollow-sounding even than usual. (19)

Both geography and a keen eye for the details of the post-war everyday

Meanwhile Crumb Street, never a place of beauty, that afternoon was at its worst. The fog slopped over its low houses like a bucketful of cold soup over a row of dirty stoves. The shops had been mean when they had been built and were designed for small and occasional trade, but since the days of victory, when a million demobilized men had passed through the terminus, each one armed with a parcel of Government-presented garments of varying usefulness, half the establishments had been taken over by opportunists specializing in the purchase and sale of secondhand clothes. Every other window was darkened with festoons of semi-respectable rags based by bundles of grey household linen, soiled suitcases, and an occasional collection of surplus war stores, green, khaki, and air-force blue…As they waited, Mr Campion reflected that the evil smell of fog is a smell of ashes grown cold under hoses, and he heard afresh the distinctive noise of the irritable, half-blinded city, the scream of brakes, the abuse of drivers, the fierce hiss of tyres on the wet road. (25)

This is reflected as well in the gang and their enormous cellar hideout — recalling old rubble films of a London where so much more is possible in the ruins. Not all of it good, as you see, but possible. It seems so distant from the sanitised and impossibly priced London of today.

I liked this too:

Mourning is not forgetting… It is an undoing. Every minute tie has to be untied and something permanent and valuable recovered and assimilated from the knot. (33)

And this — as told by the inspector.

Remember V 2’s? The whole city waiting. Silent. People on edge. More waiting. Waiting for hours. Nothing. Nothing to show. Then, strike a light! Suddenly, no warning, no whistle, wallop! End of the ruddy world! Just a damned great hole and afterwards half the street coming down very slowly, like a woman fainting. (37)

The Tiger in the Smoke — most enjoyable.

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Brick Lane

117664There is such a richness to be uncovered here in Brick Lane, and I fail to uncover it in this post. I just collected a few quotes I particularly liked about life in London…that’s what you get, reading for enjoyment. I did enjoy this exploration of immigration and grappling with culture as they intertwine with character and expectations, and of course, the city itself. I loved its focus on women’s experience, enjoyed Nazneen’s attainment of strength and freedom, how it compares to her sister’s, how it connects to politics and race and self and place.

I remember first coming to the city from the desert — nothing like a village full of verdant green, but still this critical view of the East End strikes a chord. Of course, I moved to L.A. first, the bits with far fewer parks and green spaces, so it’s harder to be so critical of London in face of that sprawling concrete disaster (much as I love so much of it).

There was a patch of green surrounded by black railings, and in the middle two wooden benches. In this city, a bit of grass was something to be guarded, fenced about, as if there were a sprinkling of emeralds sown in among the blades. Nazneen found the gate and sat alone on the bench. A maharanee in her enclosure. The sun came out from behind a black cloud and shone briefly in her eyes before plunging back under cover, disappointed with what it had seen. (58)

This is an East End without all the lovely and curious things in it I have come to love, an East End restricted to estates and concrete — all the problems of social housing without much to redeem them:

She turned into the Berner Estate. Here, every type of cheap hope for cheap housing lived side by side in a monument to false economy. The low rises crouched like wounded monsters along concrete banks. In the gullies, beach-hut fabrications clung anxiously to the hard terrain, weathered and beaten by unknown storms. A desolate building, gouged-out eyes in place of windows, announced the Tenant’s Association: Hall for Hire. (468)

That said, I have seen a number of these Tenant Association halls, and they really are entirely dire. I always wondered about that. They, more than anything else, show that estates weren’t always built with the most respect for the people they were to house. Many were, of course, but not these perhaps.

The meeting was in a low building at the edge of the estate. It had been built without concession to beauty and with the expectation of defilement. (236)

Even so they contain so much life, friendships that matter, families and tragedies and love and plans for the future and organising for better or for worse.

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Parkland Walk — and the transformation of every unused track

Parkland Walk is an extraordinary thing to find in London — it removes you from the city and carries you through it at the same time. You catch glimpses of buildings through the trees, everywhere little paths join it, allowing people to enter and exit from their streets of concrete and brick and stone. Each such path or stairway stands as a tantalising road not taken.

Never do you lose the feeling you have somehow escaped the city for a while into a cathedral of green.

It carries you along with quite a number of other people.

Parkland Walk, London

Past these wonderful ruins of the old train platforms

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of leaves

Parkland Walk, London

Through tunnels of stone and brick, covered with a generally higher quality of graffiti art than I am used to in this city

Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, London

past alcoves with sprites [as we found out later, a spriggan] smiling down on you

Parkland Walk, Londonrounded towers and stairs Parkland Walk, LondonParkland Walk, LondonTrees intertwined with brick Parkland Walk, London

And nearing the end in Highgate, a meadow, with a dirt trail that invites you along

Parkland Walk, London

To find the bats:

Parkland Walk, London

Surely we can do this with all of our disused railway lines. A welcome breath of peace and beauty, a place for birds and wildlife, and a safe place to walk that many people can integrate into their daily routines, and the rest of us can enjoy from time to time.

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In the Ditch — a little more on the subject of estates

1407176The Pussy Cat Mansions were built around a large compound. Adah called the open space a compound, remembering Africa. the Family Advisor, whom she met later, used the word courtyard for the open space. It was an open space into which all the front doors opened out. In the centre of the compound were some ill-looking buildings. Adah’s African friends called these little houses ‘Juju man’s house’. When the vicar’s wife visited, she said to Adah, ‘Those houses look like a monastery,’ but the Deaconness said they looked more like a mortuary. Originally the architect had meant them to be used as pram and bicycle sheds…(16)

The stairs are steep in the mansions, and the trash chutes are almost always overflowing.  Small windows and doors. Small impersonal tiles like hospitals and prisons. Thin walls that allow you to hear everything. The smell of urine. Children everywhere.

Ah, yes, the Mansions were a unique place, a separate place individualised for ‘problem families’. Problem families with real problems were placed in a problem place. So even if one lived at the Mansions and had no problems the set-up would create problems – in plenty.  (17)

I love this story exploring life and a council estate and the welfare state intertwined. The deep ambivalence of needed help and its provision with strings and dependency. But it starts with what council housing could be — a way for someone to escape an untenable rental situation, somewhere stable and safe and welcoming to make of their life what they wish. For Adah in her first night in her new flat:

There were three important things she knew she had acquired that night, her independence, her freedom, and peace of mind. (15)

Those things that are so hard to find in private rentals, in shared flats, in uncertain tenancies where you never know what will happen next, when you will be out, what your crazy flatmate might do. Where it is hard to find space of your own.

The terrible thing is that many council flats did not bring such things in the end; this one didn’t. Everyone who knew anything warned her to wait for a flat in a better building. You watch this living situation move Adah further and further from each of these three objectives she prizes so greatly, above all stealing away her independence and drive through the demands and requirements placed on her by the Family Advisor.

God, you want to hit that woman sometimes. Carol, you think, and shake your head. The tenants know as well as the readers that she lives off of ‘helping’ them, and she’s not one to help herself out of a job. The remote possibility remains that she does at bottom have people’s best interests at heart, but she still kills just as dead each possible future but the one in which you just get by through a begrudged kindness from the State, with her help of course.

Despite all of that, the Mansions has its own community, its own support. There is a warmth there, a camaraderie. There is something to miss after everyone is moved along and it is demolished. We always leave a piece of ourselves behind in the places we have lived and the people we have shared our lives with.

While writing this I was comparing the Mansions with Haggerston Estate in my mind, also considered a problem estate for problem people from the very beginning. I was wondering what might have grown in the Mansions if people had been allowed to come together, to do for themselves, to take ownership of the space, to dream and plan and paint.

You see sparks of resistance here and there, of course, it is curious the different extents to which Adah’s fellow tenants have internalised both the rules and the disrespectful attitudes behind them. Curious where they make their stands. But make their stands they do.

We need social housing that does not through its patronising control of the poor create such conditions, that provides the infrastructure instead to support and nurture the human lives within it. That ensures the Carols of the world are employed in jobs they are actually good at where they can do no damage. Estate: A Reverie has some of the answers. Of course, we also have to build more, and better social housing. And stop destroying what we have. Emecheta is showing here both what housing could mean to a mother trying to achieve a better life, and the gap between that wonderful possibility and a controlling reality of rules and requirements that denies that achievement.

It doesn’t seem impossible.

March Against Austerity, 20 June 2015

This year’s march against austerity was a good march, so much bigger than I was fearing, though not quite numbers I would have loved most. But it felt good to be taking to the streets with a quarter of a million people to demand austerity come to an end. I liked the route as well, and the best thing by far? My friend Sean well enough to come out for the march and Mark by my side and ending up in the Chandos as always with friends old and new. Also, the drummers. Thank you drummers.

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

FBU! I hope the fight-the-cuts firetruck was out and about in London playing ‘Ring of Fire’

March Against Austerity

There was a small Bitcoin contingent (Bitcoin? Is it really going to revolutionise everything and make the world a better place?)

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

There were plenty of jokes about Ruth dressing as a widow hoping to get lucky at the funeral

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

Cats! Always fun…

March Against Austerity

March Against Austerity

And this guy…

March Against Austerity

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Designing the Urban Commons

Went to the launch event for this last night, it has been an interesting few months after a good invitation to people to submit proposals for how urban commons might be designed, created, reimagined, repurposed, preserved. heroish The website with the original call from earlier this year states:

The city itself should arguably be treated as a common: a collective physical and cultural creation by and for its inhabitants. However the range of activities permitted in urban spaces is becoming increasingly narrow. Many streets and squares are now managed by private owners and those held by the state are too often sanitised by public space designs that serve to enhance local property values and business rates. This leaves little possibility for the urban public to be used productively by its communities to sustain themselves materially or culturally. Where today is there space in public for people to work together to produce the city and its resources outside of market demands?

Commoning, the collective ownership and management of resources, is currently being reimagined across social, political and economic debates as a response to this challenge facing all cities today. With Britain’s rich history of common rights, London is the perfect place to test commons out as a vital approach to urban design.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSEI think London is a good place — though in many ways it is a difficult place as struggle of who has a right to public spaces is so very fierce here as the housing crisis grows ever bigger, austerity bites ever deeper and people’s lives become even more precarious. Once diversity of class and race and occupation is lost simply by virtue of who can afford to live in an area and who has been priced out, beautifying public spaces takes on a whole new dimension with its user-base fixed.

The exhibition showed the ten winners, a few of them grappling in some way with these dynamics, though many not. It is a difficult thing to ensure manageable concrete interventions work to counter to the movements of capital and privatisation.

In reality, I think that things like this can often contribute to such movements, many are easily co-opted into placemaking for the elite who can’t manage to create their own own bottom-up ‘culture’ the way it sometimes emerges naturally and vibrantly in cities, often in places where the local residents have had the time and inexpensive space to create. Holding an exhibition at LSE under the gazes of nobel laureate economists doesn’t give me more confidence, perhaps more so because I went there. Truth is, though, after having living in Glasgow, after visiting Liverpool and Sheffield, I find myself jealous of the kinds of shops and the activities (art, music, writing, all that stuff that almost never pays its own way) that can flourish there where ground rents don’t kill everything but boutiques and chain stores.

Unquestionably, however, vibrant public spaces help people find the inspiration and the means of preserving their rights to remain living nearby. Such spaces also inspire people to fight for them, and protect them from privatisation. I quite love imagining how to help facilitate this vibrance, and thinking through just how much is possible through design. Whyte, Jacobs and Gehl among others show a great deal is possible. But only if you’re paying attention.

UrbanCommons_Service-Wash-Headline-Image_AD_TRPOne of the pieces — Service Wash — was certainly a provocation around austerity and its consequences (and while launderettes may be declining in popularity, I rather challenge its premise that they are no longer much used, as they certainly are in my neighbourhood, and I’ve heard that women come for miles to wash clothes with their mums on a Saturday, back to their communities where they can no longer afford to live).

An urban phenomenon, the launderette is a relic of postwar social infrastructure, a provision intended to be egalitarian. Its decline in popularity is countered by an A1 class designation that prohibits change of use…thus explaining the bye-gone-era flavour of your local launderette. The Service Wash utilises the launderette’s quotidian presence proposing an expansion of its established function in favour of those most marginalised by urban renewal – the homeless. The physical inability to clean or be clean can be psychologically punishing; it creates an additional barrier to inclusiveness that the proposal aims to remedy. By partnering with homeless charities and drawing on existing initiatives, the launderette becomes a place to wash both clothes and self for those who have no other means to do so.

I’d prefer a focus on the problem of housing. I’d prefer a different use of words, perhaps, public baths were still being built at the turn of last century for example. But I like not ignoring the large and steady increases of those sleeping rough, I like imagining public places that serve their needs before we build their homes, and I especially like highlighting the negative changes in our society that are causing this increase in people who need public showers along with somewhere to wash their clothes. There was one explicitly battling developers — Commonstruction: A Manual for Radical Inclusivity:

Local community groups are resisting the planned regeneration of Tottenham with the claim that a policy of social cleansing is being used to facilitate a land grab by developers and speculators. The purpose of our design manual is to create a circular reference for various actors in the area that will coordinate collective action and enrich the threatened public life. There are 3 key combinations of spaces that constitute it: • Live-work & Community workshops • Public social spaces • Residential & Start-up spaces

It starts with a land trust…so I like it, though I’m not entirely sure I know exactly what it would be. It provokes questions about how commons are preserved exactly, and what happens when they are too full of activity and new building. I wonder. The winners were profiled on large boards along one wall, it was full enough to make it difficult to get wine and get close enough to the boards to read them properly, space was cleared though as the speeches started.

You can just see here the Reimagining the Lodge poster from the folks at Shuffle whose events, mostly held at Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park where the lodge sits are amazing:

Reinventing the Lodge is about creating a place to meet, a place to be and opportunities for things to do. To give people permission to inhabit this undervalued environment in new ways is to cultivate local pride, identity and sense of belonging – the feeling of being at home.

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE I was far and couldn’t see the wonderful Richard Sennet, who I never did manage to see lecture while at LSE. I could hear though: Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31I’m not a big tweeter (I left the right hashtag off and everything), but I couldn’t resist this one a bit later (I just make up my own hash tags you see): Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 14.25.31-2It was good, though, to hear about occupy and the struggle over public space. Some proposals fit that better than others, like Saturday Commoning Fever:

Saturday Commoning Fever is an online platform that provides Londoners with means to common in the streets of the city. By simplifying “street rules” in a website rather than hiding in regulation files, we aim to question those rules and challenge them.

I quite loved Rainbow of Desires — not least because it involves theatre of the oppressed and mentions Augusto Boal, but I am quite intrigued by these kiosks and the uses an estate might make of them…

“Rainbow of desires” is a set of small pavilions installed in the open spaces of the Rhodes estate in Dalston. During a period of three months the pavilions are doubling as performative devices and workshop spaces based on the techniques of the theatre of the Oppressed and spaces of communal everyday life (public seating area, an open kitchen, an exchange library, a cinema).

Rainbow-of-Desires-close-up-900x526 There was a proposal to fill the old gasworks with trees (being raised in America it was years before I knew what the hell those things even were, and now I can only think of all the workers suffered there). Good idea, though they are fascinating structures and I sometimes dream of what else they could become…

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

I did like this little display showing the winners’ physical locations around London, though I couldn’t help but wonder what will happen to it when this is done, and will we be able to play with it then:

Designing the Urban Commons, LSE

A good event, it was wonderful to view the ideas that poured out in response to the call and honestly, can we just put up these notice boards around lamp posts already? UCHeadline-900x900

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Sam Selvon’s London

1382607One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet. Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove to go to Waterloo to meet a fellar who was coming from Trinidad on the boat-train.

When Moses sit down and pay his fare he take out a white handkerchief and blow his nose. The handkerchief turns black and Moses watch it and curse the fog. (1)

Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners (1956) is grand. The writing, the characters, the thoughtfulness. The invitation into experiencing a London so particular to the Windrush generation’s time and place. The humour, the tall-tale aspect as though you were listening to these stories spoken aloud. The home truths. How when you come you stay in a hostel at first:

When Moses did arrive fresh in London, he look around for a place where he wouldn’t have to spend much money, where he could get plenty food, and where he could meet the boys and coast a old talk to pass the time away — for this city powerfully lonely when you on your own. (29)

How you find your way around London, into the places and the neighbourhoods you can live in and be accepted to a certain extent. The reflection on class and race and how these fit together.

The place where Tolroy and the family living was off the Harrow Road, and the people in that area call the Working Class. Wherever in London that it have Working Class, there you will find a lot of spades. This is the real world, where men know what it is to hustle a pound to pay the rent when Friday come. The houses around here old and grey and weatherbeaten, the walls cracking like the last days of Pompeii, it ain’t have no hot water, and in the whole street that Tolroy and them living in, none of the houses have bath. You had was to buy one of them big galvanise bath and boil the water and full it up, or else go to the public bath. Some of the houses still had gas light, which is to tell you how old they was. All the houses in a row in the street, on both sides, they build like one long house with walls separating them in parts, so your house jam up between two neighbours: is so most of the houses is in London The street does be always dirty except if rain fall. Sometimes a truck does come with a kind of revolving broom and some pipes letting out water, and the driver drive near the pavement, and water come out the pipes and the broom revolve, and so they sweep the road. It always have little children playing in the road, because they ain’t have no other place to play. They does draw hopscotch blocks on the pavement, and other things, and some of the walls of the buildings have signs painted like Vote Labour and Down with the Tories. The bottom of the street, it had a sweet-shop, a bakery, a grocery, a butcher and a fish and chips…

It have people living in London who don’t know what happening in the room next to them, far more the street, or how other people living. London is a place like that. It divide up in little worlds, and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones except what you read in the papers. Them rich people who does live in Belgravia and Knightsbridge and up in Hampstead and them other plush places, they would never believe what it like in a grim place like Harrow Road or Notting Hill…People don’t talk about things like that again, they come to kind of accept that is so the world is, that it bound to have rich and poor, it bound to have some live by the Grace and other who have plenty. That is all about it, nobody does go into detail. A poor man, a rich man…

It have a kind of communal feeling with the Working Class and the spades, because when you poor things does level out, it don’t have much up and down. A lot of the men get kill in war and leave widow behind, and it have bags of these old geezers who does be pottering about the Harrow Road like if they lost, a look in their eye as if the war happen unexpected and they can’t realise what happen to the old Brit’n. (59-61)

There are tales of stealing pigeons, catching seagulls. Eating well. Spur of the moment marriages. Mistakes. Unexpected aunts transforming a street and suddenly the corner store works on credit. The courage needed to find your way on the tube. The good times of London, the thrill you get sometimes thinking to yourself I’m here, I’m really here, and is fine:

So, cool as a lord, the old Galahad walking out to the road, with plastic raincoat hanging on the arm, and the eyes not missing one sharp craft that pass, bowing his head in a polite ‘Good evening’ and not giving a blast if they answer or not.This is London, this life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. (75)

Galahad is who Moses met on the train. This is as much his story. His musings on race — what better way to think about how it is constructed, how meaningless it is and yet still shape our lives?

And Galahad watch the colour of his hand, and talk to it, saying, ‘Colour, is you that causing all this, you know, why the hell you can’t be blue, or red or green, if you can’t be white? You know is you cause a lot of misery in the world. Is not me, is you, is you! I ain’t do anything to infuriate the people and them, is you! Look at you, you so black and innocent, and this time so you causing misery all over the world.

So Galahad talking to the colour Black, as if is a person, telling it that is not he who causing botheration in the place, but Black, who is a worthless thing for making trouble all about. (77)

A new happiness for me every time I go to Piccadilly Circus, a fictional memory overlaid on my own but such a good one:

Always, from the first time he went there to see Eros and the lights, that circus have a magnet for him, that circus represent life, that circus is the beginning and the ending of the world. Every time he go there, he have the same feeling like when he see it the first night, drink coca-cola, any time is guinness time, bovril and the fireworks, a million flashing lights, gar laughter, the wide doors of theatres, the huge posters, everready batteries, rich people going into tall hotels, people going to the theatre, people sitting and standing and walking and talking and laughing and buses and cars and Galahad Esquire, in all this, standing there in the big city, in London. Oh Lord. (79)

This is what I do love about London, even if Bayswater Road is now far out of reach for people like me:

The changing of the seasons, the cold sl9icing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular. Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ Picadilly Circus is my playground,’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world. To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Road (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning ‘Last night, in Trafalgar Square…’

What it is that a city have, that any place in the world have, that you get so much to like it you wouldn’t leave it for anywhere else? What is it that would keep men although by and large, in truth and in fact, they catching their royal to make a living, staying in a cramp-up room where you have to do everything — sleep, eat, dress, wash, cook, live. (133-134)

p85112_d_v7_aaAnd then there is Pressure (1975), the story of Tony just graduated from school and looking for work and Notting Hill in the 1970s and the life of a kid born in London to Trinidadian parents who believe this will open doors for him despite the colour of his skin. It is the first feature length British film by a Black director, Horace Ové, and cowritten by him and Selvon. It is a slow, but powerful engagement with racism, with the friendships built across race amongst the working class kids growing up together, with Black Power and Black realities in London of the time, of the tensions between generations and family born in one world and family born into another. It is rice and peas versus fish and chips. It is conformity to white masters and a white world and consolations in Jesus versus taking one’s place by right as a British citizen. It is how to take that right through collective action, but the limited numbers still engaged in that action. It is more serious than Lonely Londoners, a little more angry, less of good times even in poverty and more of struggle and frustration. More racist cops. More beatings. More complexity. It stays in one neighbourhood, perhaps you sense the tightening down of community, there is none of this sprawling across London that the life of hustling brings many of the characters in The Lonely Londoners. These characters, too, are absent in depth, there is no Big City, no Cap here though an echo of their younger selves perhaps, but instead a kid trying to make his own way, discovering racism for himself, working through his own identity slowly but surely.

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Americanah

20939941I quite loved Americanah — this story of Ifemelu and Obinze, funny that the fact that it has become a best seller gives me a little more respect for people in general and possibly also the literary establishment. Funny also that my love of it made me realise what a wonderful book it is, as so much of the dramatic arc is centered on relationships in a difficult world and that is not usually something that will grip my attention.

I like my relationships solid and healthy and consisting of mutual respect and taking care of each other — I like them as things I don’t have to think too much about but can just trust. I hate drama in them. I don’t like to spend time talking through them or thinking about them or knowing about how other people do it (or fail to). So I kept wanting an element of the fantastical, a crime, I kept bumping into my own limitations. But I loved this book all the same.

Of course, it is about lots of other things, race and class and loneliness and immigration and shame and the things we do for money and the things that break us and how we heal those breaks or fail to, how we name our integrity and keep it, what we do when it slips. It is about love. It is about change. About being brave.

There was lots to think about, I loved the stories of Nigeria, of the US East Coast, but perhaps because I live in London now, am a little more removed from everything that I was in the US, I can’t help but quote these:

In London, night came too soon, it hung in the morning air like a threat, and then in the afternoon a blue-grey dusk descended, and the Victorian buildings all wore a mournful air. In those first weeks, the cold startled Obinze with its weightless menace, drying his nostrils, deepening his anxieties, making him urinate too often….Sometimes he would stop outside a tube station…and watch the people brushing past him. they walked so quickly these people, as though they had an urgent destination, a purpose to their lives, while he did not. His eyes would follow them, with a lost longing, and he would think: You can work, you are legal, you are visible, and you don’t even know how fortunate you are. (227)

This too rings so true, breaks my heart:

The wind blowing across the British Isles was odorous with fear of asylum seekers, infecting everybody with the panic of impending doom, and so articles were written and read, simply and stridently, as though the writers lived in a world in which the present was unconnected to the past, and they had never considered this to be the normal course of history: the influx into Britain of black and brown people from countries created by Britain. (258)

I also loved Ifemelu’s blog posts on race in the U.S., they were both funny and perceptive, a bit like Black Girl Dangerous:

Job Vacancy in America — National Arbiter in Chief of “Who is Racist”

Here’s the thing: the manifestation of racism has changed but the language has not. So if you haven’t lynched somebody then you can’t be called a racist. If you’re not a bloodsucking monster, then you can’t be called a racist…Or maybe it’s time to scrap the word “racist.” Find something new. Like Racial Disorder Syndrome. And we could have different categories for sufferers of this syndrome: mild, medium, and acute. (315)

This quote is just because I know someone like this:

There were people who were born with an inability to be tangled up in dark emotions, in complications, and Iloba was one of them. For such people, Obinze felt both admiration and boredom (249).

My disinterest in complicated relationships has nothing to do with lack of emotions, and this made me smile as I feel the same.

Anyway. I am looking forward to everything else she has written.

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The Delights of Bohemian London

Bohemian LondonAnd I do not use the word ‘delight’ very often in the same sentence as Bohemian, and this first quote shows why, describing a tiny Moorish cafe:

Dark hair, dark eyes, sallow-skinned faces everywhere, here and there a low caste Englishman, and sometimes, if you are lucky, a Bohemian in emerald corduroy, lolling broadly on his chair and puffing at a porcelain pipe. Sit down near him, and it is ten to one that you will be engaged in a wordy battle of acting, of poetry, or of pictures, before the sediment has time to settle in your coffee. (122)

It’s all there, the search to inhabit the quaint or the exotic, the dress that attempts both, but also the fascination and joy in all night discussions of things like words. It describes a life of relative poverty, but one you drop down into and you don’t drop all the way — you realise that when they still have a maid or at least someone to bring them their dinner. It’s a mixed bag, but this book has all the best of it. Besides, even C.L.R. James loved his first stay in Bloomsbury.

And then, the poignant, painful self-abandon when at last you are conquered, and a book leads you by the hand to the passionless little man inside the shop, and makes you pay him money, the symbol, mean, base, sordid in itself, but still the symbol that the book has won, and swayed the pendulum of your emotions past the paying point.

I remember the buying of my “Anatomy of Melancholy” (that I have never read, nor ever mean to–I dare not risk the sweetness of the title)… (137)

I have been conquered that way so many times.

On Fleet Street, that I love:

Indeed, Fleet Street, brave show as it is today, must have been splendid then, seen through old Temple Bar, a turning, narrow thorough-fare, with high-gabled houses a little overhanging the pavements, those pavements where crowds of gentlemen, frizzed and wigged, in coloured coats and knee-breeches, went to and fro about their business. There would come strutting little Goldsmith in the plum-coloured suit, and the sword so big that it seemed a pin and he a fly upon it. There would be Johnson, rolling in his gait, his vast stomach swinging before him, his huge laugh bellying out in the narrow street, with Boswell at his side, leaning round to see his face, and catch each word as it fell from his lips. There would be Doctor Kenrick, Goldsmith’s arch enemy, for whose fault he broke a stick over the back of Bookseller Evans, and got a pummelling for his pains. There would be the usual mob of young fellows
trying as gaily then as now to keep head above water by writing for the Press.

And then think of it in a later time, when Hazlitt walked those pavements, with straight, well-meant strides, as befits a man who has done his thirty miles a day along the Great North Road. Perhaps, as he walked, he would be composing his remarks on the oratory of the House of Commons, which he was engaged to report for Mr. Perry of the Morning Chronicle. Or perhaps, if it were Wednesday, he would turn in at Mitre Court, or meet a slim-legged, black-clothed figure with a beautiful head, Charles Lamb, coming out of the archway, or hurrying in there, with a folio under his arm, fresh from the stall of the second-hand bookseller. Perhaps Lamb might be playing the journalist himself, writing jokes for Dan Stuart of the Morning Post. You remember: “Somebody has said that to swallow six cross-buns daily, consecutively, for a fortnight would surfeit the stoutest digestion. But to have to furnish as many jokes daily, and that not for a fortnight, but for a long twelvemonth, as we were constrained to do, was a little harder exaction.” Or, perhaps, you might meet Coleridge coming that way from his uncomfortable lodging in the office of the Courier up the Strand. Coleridge knew the ills of journalistic life. De Quincey “called on him daily and pitied his forlorn condition,” and left us a description of his lodging. De Quincey had known worse himself, but this was evil enough. “There was no bell in the room, which for many months answered the double purpose of bedroom and sitting-room. Consequently I often saw him, picturesquely enveloped in nightcaps, surmounted by handkerchiefs indorsed upon handkerchiefs, shouting from the attics down three or four flights of stairs to a certain * Mrs. Brainbridge,’ his sole attendant, whose dwelling was in the subterranean regions of the house. There did I often see the philosopher, with the most lugubrious of faces, invoking with all his might this uncouth name of ‘Brainbridge’ each syllable of which he intonated with long-drawn emphasis, in order to overpower the hostile hub-bub coming downwards from the creaking press and the roar from the Strand which entered at all the front windows.

***

And now there are these different Fleet Streets, one on the top of the other, dovetailed together indistinguishably. A building here, an old doorway there, the name of a side street, brings back a memory of one age or another. This tavern, for example, was given its name as a jest by a gay-dressed fellow in long locks, with a sword swinging at his side. there is the street of the White Friars. That building was designed by a subject of Queen Anne. Lamb walked past while those offices were still cradled in their scaffolding.

On a sunny morning there is no jollier sight in all the world than to look down Fleet Street, from a little below the corner of Fetter Lane on that side of the road. The thorough-fare is thronged with buses–green for Whitechapel, blue going to Waterloo Bridge, white for Liverpool Street, gay old survivals of the coaching days… (154)

I love our red buses but this still fills me with a desire for colour-coding…

This is youth and joy and excitement in words, paintings, life lived to the fullest in long nights drinking and talking and drinking and talking some more. It is a different kind of devotion to literature or art, made possible by relatively cheap lodgings (oh London, you don’t know what you are destroying) and some limited freedom from the life of toil. It is life best in its full flush of youth, when a small sum earned from an article feels like gold and is spent on wine before age and children and the fight for survival has stripped all the joy away (Gissing makes this world hard to imagine in New Grub Street, but I believe that at times and for some it was really there).

It is an age long gone I think. But we still laugh and stay up all night talking over wine. Just not as picturesquely.

There is a description of the loveliest wedding party ever in Soho, gossip and chit chat galore. Plenty to smile at. But this is also an immensely erudite collection of who said what where in these little corners of the city Ransome loves.

So back to Fleet Street, he gives a list of pubs and clubs and the people who met there and the poems and epigraphs that they wrote, the discussions they had and, well, it is inspiration to go drinking I must say. But you cannot do them all at once, as he writes:

To sup with ale at the Cheshire Cheese, to drink at the Punch Bowl, at the Green Dragon, at the Mitre, at the Cock, at the Grecian, at the George, at the Edinburgh — in short, to beat the bounds of every tavern in Fleet Street, from Ludgate Circus to the Strand, that is a festival too peripatetic to be comfortable, an undertaking too serious to be lighthearted.

But one at a time? Oh yes. The Cheshire Cheese is already much beloved by me, so I shall just end with the description of that one:

 ar down on the Fetter Lane side of the street there is the Cheshire Cheese, still the dirty-fronted, low-browed tavern, with stone flasks in the window, that it was even before Johnson’s time. Here, so people say, Johnson and Goldsmith used to sup and be merry with their friends. Perhaps it vv^as the haunt of one of the talking clubs of which neither of them was ever tired. Although it is nowhere written that Johnson crossed the threshold, it is very unlikely that the man who asserted that “a tavern chair was the throne of human felicity” could have neglected such an opportunity as was his. For he lived for some time in Wine Office Court, in whose narrow passage is the entrance to the tavern, and I doubt if he could have passed it every day without finding some reason for encouraging it. Indeed, with Macaulayic logic, they show you Johnson’s corner seat, the wall behind it rubbed smooth by the broadcloth of innumerable visitors, “to witness if they lie.” It is a pleasant brown room, this, in the tavern, with Johnson’s portrait hanging on the wall, old wooden benches beside good solid tables, and a homely smell of ale and toasted cheese.Here many of the best-known journalists make a practice of dining, and doubtless get some sauce of amusement with their meat from the young men and girls, literary and pictorial, destined to work for the cheap magazines and fashion papers, who always begin their professional career by visiting the Cheshire Cheese for inspiration. Up a winding, crooked, dark staircase there are other rooms, with long tables in them stained with wine and ale, and in one of them the Rhymers’ Club used to meet, to drink from tankards, smoke clay pipes, and recite their own poetry. (161-162)

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