April 20, 2011

An American in London

Arthur Warren.  London Days.  A Book of Reminiscences.  Little, Brown, 1920.

Arthur Warren was the long-standing London correspondent for the Boston Herald.  In 1920 he published his reminiscences, London Days, where he discussed a variety of subjects: his memories and impressions of Tennyson, Gladstone, Parnell; his struggle to become a journalist, and suchlike.

Warren first set foot in London in 1878, as a naïve 18-year-old fresh off the boat from New York.  He begins his narrative with ‘First glimpses of London’ with predictable references to Dickensian atmosphere, fog and gas lamps.  This theme continues throughout – presumably he thinks this is what his readers expect/want to read.

As you read through London Days, it soon becomes clear that Warren enjoys what I can only describe as a masochistic enjoyment of past hardships.  He maligns contemporary passengers on transatlantic voyages who enjoy on-board luxuries like deckchairs, barber shops, electric bells and good dinners.  Warren had none of these on his first Atlantic crossing, and he spent the entire voyage being seasick in his cabin.  His depiction of the austere conditions on his own ship bring to mind Ahab’s Pequod, for reasons I know not.

Another aspect of past life that he enjoyed was the absence of speedy travel.  In the days before the internal combustion engine and electricity (then the only thing electric was the telegraph), Warren enjoyed going places – slowly and leisurely – and he laments the loss of this “charm.”  “We were not in a hurry then.”  He sees the slow pace as something that made London a “more livable place.”

Strangely, one hardship of London life that he finds intolerable is the lack of heating and hot water in public and private buildings.  He finds English buildings damp and chilly, and everyone suffers from rheumatism.  American homes, on the other hand, are warm and dry.  A heated building is such an exception that the fact is advertised.  In this respect he has a point.  Many advertisements of the era for hotels, for example, stress the fact that bedrooms and public rooms are heated.  Today, this strikes us as peculiar and a modern analogous ad might read 'All rooms equipped with beds.'

He engages in the national pastime of bashing London architecture (nothing new here).  “Could anything be uglier than the National Gallery?” he asks rhetorically.  For him, “the Methodist mountain in Westminster is frozen pudding.”   

Warren demonstrates a touch of nationalistic chauvinism.  He thinks London’s buildings are the worst in Europe, apart from those in Germany.  Communications are poor, as the telephone is “almost unknown to-day” (1920) in comparison to New York’s statistics.

If life in London was so abysmal, you might wonder why he spent his entire adult life working there.  I think the answer lies in the fact that his job allowed him to rub shoulders with the great and the good of British society.  A few of the names that he drops include Lord Tennyson, Gladstone and Lord Kelvin.  He was acquainted with some of the notables he writes about; with others he barely knew them.

Even with a primary text such as this, written during the era under examination, one must be ultra cautious.  In theory, Warren should be writing objectively, since he is a journalist.  We see that the reality is somewhat different.  The author earns his living as a wordsmith and needs all his skills in rhetoric and presentation.  Let us not forget as well that Warren wrote his book when he was sixty.  How have the intervening forty-odd years coloured his judgement and memory?

In the end, I ask myself why Warren could find nothing positive to say about his environment in 1920.  Were things really that bad, even two years after the end of World War I?

Why was he more nostalgic about the past?  How can people look back at the past and see it only through rose-tinted spectacles?  Once you have tasted the present and experienced the material comforts that new technologies afford, how can you still yearn for the time before?

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