26 November 2009
Two great sound references from 'History is Made at Night'
IF YOU’VE FOLLOWED the link on this site to Transpontine, easily among the best London blogs, you’ll also enjoy reading another one by the same man: History is Made at Night. Keeping two good blogs going at once shows an enviable work ethic.
I read Transpontine a lot for local history and news around south-east London. History is Made at Night has more in-depth articles on music and politics in the tradition of ‘history from below’, and one recent post kindly offered a couple of fine sound references for inclusion in the historical section here. The first is from Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway, first published in 1925 and set immediately after the First World War:
For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty,— one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed. First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. Such fools we are, she thought, crossing Victoria Street. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so, how one sees it so, making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh; but the veriest frumps, the most dejected of miseries sitting on doorsteps (drink their downfall) do the same; can’t be dealt with, she felt positive, by Acts of Parliament for that very reason: they love life. In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.
The optimistic sense of the city imparting energy and life through its sounds, and not simply disorienting or overwhelming the listener, has earlier echoes in works by other authors, as with this short excerpt from Anthony Trollope’s The Three Clerks, published in 1858:
The London night world was alive as he made his way. From the Opera Colonnade shrill voices shrieked at him as he passed, and drunken men coming down from the night supper-houses in the Haymarket saluted him with affectionate cordiality.
The second reference also conveys liveliness, and is taken from Geoffrey Fletcher’s 1962 city guide The London Nobody Knows:
Saturday morning is the time to see the human element at its richest in Deptford, and in the crowded High Street are all sorts of buskers and street entertainers whose presence gives additional character to the street: an organ grinder, perhaps, whose instrument is more properly termed ‘a street piano’ (there is still one firm left hiring out the’ pianos’ in London, near Saffron Hill: look for the pictures of Edwardian beauties on the panels of the organ), one-man bands, sellers of Old Moore’s Almanack and so on. Today, a couple of stocky, red-faced men take their stand under the railway bridge - one plays an accordion and the other sings ‘The Mountains of Mourne’. Appropriately, too, for Irish ideas are not lacking in Deptford - witness the large pub charmingly named The Harp of Erin and here today at the Catholic Church a gaudy Irish wedding takes place. As the bride and groom assemble on the steps, they are joined by their families and friends, the women in pale blue and the men in navy-blue suits. All wear large pink carnations, and the men’s faces, each creased in a wide grin, are all red from the application of yellow soap. Small boys, also in blue suits and with even shinier faces, cross their legs uneasily, and the accordion plays ‘The Meeting of the Waters’ . . .
On the strength of that extract The London Nobody Knows comes across as more engaging than some other books which also claimed to provide insights into the city of the 1960s, such as Colin MacInnes’s London, City of Any Dream and Hunter Davies’s The New London Spy. Lots of people evidently did know the London that Fletcher was describing, but the assumption of those times was usually that the readership would never overlap with the people being written about.