January 30, 2011

"The Soul of London"

Ford Madox Ford wrote The Soul of London (published 1905) to set down his impressions of London.  Much more than a mere travelogue, Ford evokes a London that is both familiar and alien.  In his own words, he wanted his account to be more than just "encyclopaedic, topographical, or archaeological."  

I found Ford's narrative enlightening for several reasons.  He lived and experienced the times under scrutiny in my thesis, and as such, can provide another dimension to the social milieu.  His writing verges on the poetic: he gives us his 'impressions' of the 'facts'.  Finally, in Soul one can easily detect those tendencies and early signs of change that later came to be known as Modernism.

Some extracts follow:

On the automobile
"... to come from any distance, say by a motor car, is to fly too fast for any easy recognition of the gradual changes from country to town.  […]  It is not so much that the speed is very great, there is always the statutory limit, a sort of nightmare; but the motorist is too low down as a rule, the air presses against the eyes and half closes them; he has a tendency to look forward along the road, to see more of vehicles and of pedestrians than of the actual country or the regiments of buildings.  He grows a little aloof, a little out of sympathy; he becomes more intent about keeping a whole skin on himself and on his car than about the outer world."

“This is doubtless no more than a matter of time, of ‘getting used to it’, or of thinking of distances, as it were, in terms of the motor car.  One has been accustomed to drive on a bus from Kensington to Piccadilly Circus in the half hour.  One has seen the tall flats by Sloan Street for some minutes, Apsley House for some more minutes [...].  These things have their familiar aspects.”

On the tram
“What the automobile is to the comfortable classes the electric tram is becoming to the poorer.  It is a means of getting into town.  It does not, however, produce the same psychological effects.  For one thing, the speed is not so great, and you have not the least anxiety as to what it may choose to run into; if you want to see things you are at a greater height, your range of sight is much longer.”

Retailing: chain stores vs. local traders
“Yet in many places within the Administrative County the tendency is all towards ‘localising’, or towards remaining separate centres.  In Hampstead, for instance, the older residents buy most things of the local tradesmen, and newer families imitate them for sentimental or for social reasons.  In poorer neighbourhoods this is much more the case.  […] And the people of the poorer suburbs do their shopping in their own High Streets.  Where great local emporia have not crushed out altogether the ‘local tradesman’, shoppers with string bags still nod at the greengrocer and the oilman when passing or when making their purchases.”

London's diversity, speed, ubiquity
“London, with its sense of immensity that we must hurry through to keep unceasing appointments, with its diffuseness, its gatherings up into innumerable trade-centres, innumerable class districts, becomes by its immensity a place upon which there is no beginning."

Vignettes also appear that 'humanise' Ford's London: the labourer whose hobby is teaching his chaffinches to sing; the wife of a cripple who made matchboxes at home to earn money, a home where all the wooden fittings had been chopped down for firewood.

Ford's account is, of course, highly subjective (can any piece of writing be otherwise?) but I see it giving us a good impression of the spirit of the times.  Some paragraphs convey the quaintness of an Edwardian London that has long since disappeared (talk of horse-drawn trams, for instance).  Yet other descriptions leave us shaking our heads and muttering, 'Some things never change.' 

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Digital Telephone Book by Elizabeth Chairopoulou is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.