Living London, Writing London

In mid-October The New York Times published a piece called “Lessons from Living in London,” written by Sarah Lyell, who spent a number of years living in London as a correspondent for the paper. Coincidentally, that same week my MA course‘s “Contexts” seminar covered Henry James’ travel essays on New York (from The American Sceneand London (from English Hours).  James’ “London” is a brilliant little travel piece; though it was written 125 years ago (!), many of James’ points about the city are still relevant today. In the following, I attempt to bring together Lyell’s and James’ essays with my own observations on living in London — though I’ve been here less than a year, I can already relate to a lot. 

One of the first things I noticed after moving to London was how the city seems to be made up of little pockets and neighborhoods that trick you into thinking you’re not living in a city of 8 million. But when you have to go somewhere, you realize how huge it is. Lyell puts it well:

Residents tend to feel more connected to their neighborhoods than to London as a whole, and because it can be an undertaking to travel to another part of town for a social occasion, geography starts to feel like destiny.

This is so true. Our little area of North London feels very neighborhood-y, and everything we need is within a 1.5-mile radius. It would be easy never to venture further afield (a-city?), and indeed it is “an undertaking” if we decide to go somewhere outside of our familiar neighborhood bubble. We have to plan ahead and take travel time and mode — Tube, bus, bike — into account. How late I’ll be coming home determines if I’ll cycle or take public transport. Whether or not I’ll even go depends on how long it would take to get there and back related to how much time I’d be spending at my destination. I never had to think about these things before, in the States or in Ukraine, where everything was within walking or driving distance.

In a similar vein, Lyell and James both touch on a fascinating result of living in London (and in many other big cities, I imagine). James classifies London as “democratic,” by which he means “You may be in it, of course, without being of it…” (16*). Lyell must have read James’ essay, because she essentially paraphrases him when she says “Londoners wear their urban identities…lightly, living in the city but not necessarily of it.” She goes on to note that “In London, people keep themselves to themselves, as the expression goes, and this can feel either liberating or lonely.” I’ve chatted about this phenomenon with a few people recently: how it can be freeing to remain in your head as you move through such a big city, but how it can also be lonely never to smile at or strike up a conversation with any other people. The latter seems to be largely a London (or European city) thing; I’ve been told that in northern England people are very friendly and often chat with strangers. In the States, too, it’s pretty likely that people will at least smile at each other after inadvertently making eye contact.

Of course — I bet you thought I’d never get to it — we can’t talk about London without mentioning the weather; Lyell and James both know this. Lyell approaches London’s weather with a sense of practicality and as the last word in her essay: “Finally, when you leave the house, dress in layers so that you can add and subtract items according to the vicissitudes of the weather.” Layers are definitely key here. The weather is changeable; you may head to work under a clear blue sky, but it isn’t unlikely you’ll be going home in a rain shower. I almost always throw in a rain shell when I cycle to university, just in case. James also notes the weather, most memorably near the beginning of the essay when he writes about “the low, magnificent medium of the sky” and how the weather causes a “strangely undefined hour of the day and season of the year […] the red gleams and blurs that may or may not be of sunset” (7). James hits it on the nose here — the sky often darkens in the afternoon, and I wonder if it’s already evening until I look at my watch and realize it’s still early the middle of the day. Or the low clouds will hang in the sky all day, giving everything a dull grayness which makes it hard to tell how early or late it is.

A cultural quirk that Lyell (and any other foreigners who have lived in London) points out is that “there are as many meanings for the word “sorry” as there are hours in the day.” As far as I understand, “sorry” can mean “excuse me,” “I apologize [for bumping into you],” “What?”, and “Sorry for interrupting.” I’m sure there are plenty of subtler meanings that I haven’t yet picked up on. James seems to take a jab at this tendency when he writes, “It is doubtless a single proof of being a London-lover…that one should undertake an apology for so bungled an attempt at a great public place as Hyde Park Corner” (12). I chuckled at that — I guess “sorry” has been in the mix for quite a while!

There is a lot in the James essay that I would love to delve further into. In my MA course’s seminar on James’ travel writing from London and New York, our professor (we’ll call him PH) noted how the London essay is (was) a new kind of travel writing, a combination of travel essay, memoir, and meditation on the meaning of London. PH also touched on how James’ characterization of London is as an “urban sublime”: it exceeds limitations and expectations, and there’s some kind of ambivalence between the city’s cruelty — “the mighty ogress who devours human flesh” (15) in this “hideous, vicious, cruel” city (4) — and its charm, beauty, and “immeasurable” or “infinite” qualities (18, 20).

I also love the last sentence of James’ “London” essay, which basically disregards the previous 30 pages he’s written:

...out of [London’s] richness and its inexhaustible good humour it belies the next hour any generalisation you may have been so simple as to make about it. (29)

That pretty much sums it up!

———

Do you or have you ever lived in London or somewhere else as an ex-pat (or native)? I invite you to contribute to the dialogue by leaving a comment below with your own experiences. It would be great to get a conversation going. In fact, my good friend Sam also read these two pieces and was also inspired to write about them, since he’s lived in London and just moved to New York City. Look out for a guest post from him soon!

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*page numbers from: Henry James, English Hours (1905), London: Tauris Parke Paperbacks, 2011.

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6 thoughts on “Living London, Writing London

  1. sarah0108 says:

    Awesome post, Tammela, as usual! It always shocks our friends and family back home when Joe and I say we still haven’t been as far south as the river or anywhere near the traditional tourist destinations, but our cute corner of Northern London is just too good. Between here and the university, I don’t really need to go much further afield (except the odd trip to the Regent Street Apple store, of course). I’m still far too new to the city to comment on the other points, but I’ll have to check back on this post in the spring when we’ve been here longer.

    • taplatt says:

      Thanks, Sarah! It’s true — we are lucky to live in north London. South of the river is worth seeing (especially for Borough Market) at some point — guests are a great excuse to explore the more touristy side of the city.

  2. itsbwitched says:

    I love this post! I loved Sarah Lyell’s piece and the comparisons here are great. I especially love the part about the neighborhoods because the longer I’m here the more true it becomes. I’m constantly looking up postcodes now to determine if/when/how I will go somewhere. But I like how it’s these small areas that make-up the city and its not like Brooklyn-Manhattan where Brooklyn feels so removed.

    • taplatt says:

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful comment, Brittany! I definitely agree that the neighborhoods make up the city, and I do love the (relatively) logical post code system here — it certainly makes it easy to figure out roughly where something is located in relation to where I live. Your blog looks great and I’m looking forward to following your adventures.

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