Monday, March 26, 2007
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
The Gordon Riots of 1780 and Barnaby Rudge
Photo: A section of the Berlin Wall on the grounds of the Imperial War Museum. The march on Parliament began near here on open space known as St. George’s Fields on Friday 2nd June at ten o’ clock in the morning, 1780.
“A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city. Where it comes from or whither it goes, few men can tell. Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel.– Charles Dickens Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty.
London, 1780: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Lord North Great Britain was fighting a difficult war in her American colonies. American diplomats working in France had brought England’s old enemy into the battle. Britain was in desperate need of more troops, and one attempt to get them had been a government bill, the Catholic Relief Act of 1778 that was designed to lessen the obstacles to Catholics serving in the military. The Act inspired fierce resistance amongst Protestants in both England and Scotland. In 1779 violent protests against a similar act being introduced in Scotland had broken out in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
On June 2nd of 1780 60,000 members of the Protestant Association, led by Lord George Gordon, massed in London to present a petition to Parliament calling for the repeal of the act. It’s members wore blue ribbons in their hats as a sign of unity. Despite physical intimidation of the legislators, a vote on the petition that afternoon was overwhelmingly defeated.
That evening Catholic chapels belonging to foreign embassies were destroyed by a mob chanting “no popery”. Although the initial violence may have been political, or sectarian, and anti-Catholic violence occurred throughout the course of disturbance, the riots as they evolved over the next week became a savage and tumultuous expression of rebellion by London’s poorest. Violence was directed at the authorities and anybody who opposed the mob, and looting was rampant. For while it looked like the government would be unable to retain control of the city. Contemporaries found this taste of revolution profoundly shocking: “the English reaction to the French revolution began well before it’s out break.”
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
"At present I would prefer not to be a little reasonable"
"What miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed! His poverty is great; but his solitude, how horrible! Think of it. Of a Sunday, Wall-street is deserted as Petra; and every night of every day it is an emptiness. This building too, which of week-days hums with industry and life, at nightfall echoes with sheer vacancy, and all through Sunday is forlorn. And here Bartleby makes his home; sole spectator of a solitude which he has seen all populous—a sort of innocent and transformed Marius brooding among the ruins of Carthage!" - Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street
By the time Melville wrote Bartleby -- the story of the scrivener whose passive resistance so aggravates the narrator -- at least two qualities of the financial district were already evident. The dual nature of the neighborhood was well established: a buzzing hive by day, a desert at night and on Sundays. And resistance to Wall Street, passive or otherwise, was clearly useless.
Melville's birthplace at 6 Pearl Street is perhaps an example of this. The modest house is long gone, and the only trace of Melville's presence is a plaque and a bust of the author hidden behind plexiglass in a sconce at the base of towering white office building.
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
I am alone; I am alone! she cried, by the fountain in Regent’s Park (staring at the Indian and his cross), as perhaps at midnight, when all boundaries are lost, the country reverts to its ancient shape, as the Romans saw it, lying cloudy, when they landed, and the hills had no names and rivers wound they knew not where—such was her darkness; when suddenly, as if a shelf were shot forth and she stood on it, she said how she was his wife, married years ago in Milan, his wife, and would never, never tell that he was mad! Turning, the shelf fell; down, down she dropped.-- Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It's not a moment as easily acheivable now as it was in 1925 when both these books were published -- at night Regents Park, Long Island and everywhere else remotely urban is lit up with shops, houses, streetlights like territorial markers for human civilisation. Harder to be lost, harder to imagine something commensurate to your capacity for wonder.
Thursday, March 09, 2006
It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus.
LONDON. Michaelmas Term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snow-flakes — gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill-temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if the day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest--Bleak House by Charles Dickens
Friday, March 03, 2006
Oliver's approach to London
As John Dawkins objected to their entering London before nightfall, it was nearly eleven o'clock when they reached the turnpike at Islington. They crossed from the Angel into St. John's Road; struck down the small street which terminates at Sadler's Wells Theatre; through Exmouth Street and Coppice Row; down the little court by the side of the workhouse; across the classic ground which once bore the name of Hockley-in-the-Hole; thence into little Saffron Hill; and so into Saffron Hill the Great: along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels. Although Oliver had enough to occupy his attention in keeping sight of his leader, he could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way, as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. The street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place, were the public-houses; and in them, the lowest orders of Irish were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Deep in the heart of London
Pickering Place. Once the home to the Texas Legation to the Court of St. James. Which brings to mind this song, somehow:
London Homesick Blues
by Gary P. Nunn. As sung by David Allan Coe, et al.
London you're a goner.
Even London Bridge has fallen down,
and moved to Arizona,
now I know why.
And I'll substantiate the rumor
that the English sense of humor
is drier than the Texas sand.
You can put up your dukes,
and you can bet your boots,
that I'm leavin' just as fast as I can.
I wanna go home with the armadillo.
Good country music from Amarillo and Abilene.
The friendliest people and the prettiest women
you've ever seen.
Well it's cold over here, and I swear,
I wish they'd turn the heat on.
And where in the world is that English girl,
I promised I would meet on the third floor.
And of the whole damn lot, the only friend I got,
is a smoke and a cheap guitar.
My mind keeps roamin', my heart keeps longin'
to be home in a Texas bar.
Well, I decided that, I'd get my cowboy hat
and go down to Marble Arch Station.
'Cause when a Texan fancies, he'll take his chances,
and chances will be takin, now that's for sure.
And them Limey eyes, they were eyein' a prize,
that some people call manly footwear.
And they said you're from down South,
and when you open your mouth,
you always seem to put your foot there.
Tuesday, October 25, 2005
The Big Match
fromThe physiology of taste
by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
II. A NATIONAL VICTORY.
When I lived in New York I used every once in a while to pass the evening in a kind of tavern kept by a man named Little, (the old lank coffee house) where one could always get turtle soup and all the dishes common in the United States.
I often went thither with the Vicomte de la Massue and M. Fehr, an old broker of Marsailles; all three of us were emigrants, and we used to drink ale and cider, and pass the evening very pleasantly together.
There I became acquainted with a Mr. Wilkinson, who was a native of Jamaica, and a person he was very intimate with, for he never left him. The latter, the name of whom I do not remember was one of the most extraordinary men I ever met. He had a square face, keen eyes, and appeared to look attentively at everything, though his features were motionless as those of a blind man. When he laughed it was with what the English call a horse's laugh, and immediately resumed his habitual taciturnity. Mr. Wilkinson seemed about forty, and, in manner and appearance, seemed to be a gentleman.
The Englishman seemed to like our company, and more than once shared the frugal entertainment I offered my friends, when Mr. Wilkinson took me one evening aside and said he intended to ask us all to dine with him.
I accepted the invitation for three o'clock on the third day after.
The evening passed quietly enough, but when I was about to leave, a waiter came to me and said that the West Indian had ordered a magnificent dinner, thinking their invitation a challenge. The man with the horse's laugh had undertaken to drink us Frenchmen drunk.
This intelligence would have induced me, if possible, to decline the banquet. It was, however, impossible, and following the advice of the Marshal de Saxe, we determined, as the wine was uncorked, to drink it.
I had some anxiety, but being satisfied that my constitution was young, healthy and sound, I could easily get the better of the West Indian, who probably was unused to liquors.
I however, went to see Messrs. Fehr and Massue, and in an occular allocution, told them of my plans. I advised them to drink as little as possible, and to avoid too many glasses, while I talked to our antagonists. Above all things, I advised them to keep up some appetite, telling them that food had the effect of moderating the fumes of wine.
Thus physically and morally armed, we went to the old bank coffee house, where we found our friends; dinner was soon ready. It consisted of a huge piece of beef, a roasted turkey, (plain) boiled vegetables, a salad and pastry.
Wine was put on the table. It was claret, very good, and cheaper than it then was in France.
Mr. Wilkinson did the honors perfectly, asking us to eat, and setting us an example, while his friend, who seemed busy with his plate, did nothing but laugh at the corners of his mouth.
My countrymen delighted me by their discretion.
After the claret came the port and Madeira. To the latter we paid great attention.
Then came the dessert composed of butter, cheese and hickory nuts. Then came the time for toasts, and we drank to our kings, to human liberty, and to Wilkinson's daughter Maria, who was, as he said, the prettiest woman in Jamaica.
Then came spirits, viz., rum, brandy, etc. Then came songs, and I saw things were getting warm. I was afraid of brandy and asked for punch. Little brought a bowl, which, doubtless, he had prepared before. It held enough for forty people, and was larger than any we have in France.
This gave me courage; I ate five or six well buttered rolls, and I felt my strength revive. I looked around the table and saw my compatriots apparently fresh enough, while the Jamaican began to grow red in the face, and seemed uneasy. His friend said nothing, but seemed so overcome that I saw the catastrophe would soon happen.
I cannot well express the amazement caused by this denouement, and from the burden of which I felt myself relieved. I rang the bell; Little came up; I said, "see these gentlemen well taken care of."? We drank a glass to their health. At last the waiter came and bore off the defeated party feet foremost. Wilkinson's friend was motionless, and our host would insist on singing, "Rule Britannia."
The New York papers told the story the next day, and added that the Englishman had died. This was not so, for Mr. Wilkinson had only a slight attack of the gout.
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
diverged: tiled vaulted ceiling Municipal Building, New York City.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
-- Robert Frost: from The Road Not Taken (1915)
Guastavino tiled, vaulted ceiling in the Municipal Building (maybe you will get married here), New York City, 1914.
The lines of the tiles made me think of the poem. I like that they, the poem and the ceiling, are of roughly the same vintage, although its a pretty meaningless coincidence.
Wednesday, September 28, 2005
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hilltop underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, "Good morrow, mother!" to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, "God bless you!" for the apples and the pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.
Edna St. Vincent Millay