Friday, August 12, 2005

Notes on London

I just finished reading a beautiful New Yorker piece from Edmund Wilson's 'Europe without Baedeker' - this one was apparently the first in the series(written in 1945) and its titled 'Notes on London at the end of the War'. War or not, most of the things that Wilson talks about in this piece are out there today for any visitor to experience. The differences between American and British attitudes towards anything and everything is as obvious today (to any casual visitor to London) as it was to Wilson 60 years ago.

"I had forgotten what a pleasant city London is. No doubt it comes to seem more attractive as New York be-comes consistently less so. From the moment a New Yorker is confronted with almost any large city of Europe, it is impossible for him to pretend to himself that his own city is anything other than an unscrupulous real-estate speculation, whereas a capital like London is a place where people are supposed to live and enjoy some recreation and comfort rather than merely pay landlords rent. The green parks and the squares that interlace the whole West End seem enchanting after the windowed, expressionless walls, the narrow, crowded streets of New York."

Didn't I get that same feeling when I got down at Covent Garden, bought tickets at Leicester Sq and walked through the huge expanse of Kensington Gardens? Don't I remember walking through Hyde Park and stopping to spend some time at Speakers' Corner and thinking why was it that Central Park seems so drab?

"The London theatre, to a New Yorker, is amazing. It used to be very much less interesting than ours, but it is at present incomparably better. Our theatre has been demoralized by Hollywood; no one really takes it seriously any more."

Don't know about New Yorkers, but its definitely very much amazing for a Chicagoan. I spent one of the most memorable afternoons of my life standing for three straight hours right infront of the stage at the Shakespeare Globe Theater watching an excellent performance of 'Much Ado About Nothing'. If only...!

"The effect of the American movies, American journalism, and American radio on the British lower-middle class is, I fear, going to he rather awful. They will get much of the banality and cheapness with little of the excitement and snap. There is certainly a large market in England for the worst the United States has to offer. Our Hollywood stars are already their stars and our best-sellers will be their best-sellers."

No comments on this one!

"And yet now that the Prime Minister was appealing thus for the continuance of an obsolete custom on the ground merely that it would be a good thing for British prestige abroad—in a word, that it was better publicity—I felt that the power and the glory were perhaps ebbing out of these symbols, that the old virtue was no longer quite there."

So true! Who but the British would make such a big deal out of the something as mundane as the changing of the guards? Standing there in front of Buckingham palace under the scorching sun along with some 500 other people all trying to get a look at the London soldier marching away to glory, I could finally understand(and appreciate) the inborn American scorn for tradition. Ridicule is the only way to counter such a spectacle. Only the British could take themselves so seriously. Oh okay, yes, but we all have a colonial hangover, remember?

"The Americans like to act for themselves and do things with a freer hand. They do not always take their paperwork quite so seriously as the British do. To the latter, they doubtless seem hit-or-miss, and they probably make annoying mistakes of a kind that is rare with the British. It is the result of having more space to move in, more margin of resources to dispose of. With the British every penny counts and every link in the chain must be tight. They do not understand the effectiveness of a loose association of men working with a minimum of formality to put through some undertaking and then eat a good dinner—which is what the Americans in Europe sometimes seem to be."

Have I ever heard it explained better? No.

I tell you, you have to read the full thing!

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