London Perceived. Text V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (5/5)

Bomb site, East End, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived *, 1962:

To the Londoner of my generation, the London sky has another dramatic significance which – once our present boredom with the whole subject is overcome – is memorable. It has been a battlefield. One day in 1940 in the entrance hall of the BBC I heard the sirens howl. One of the maternal ladies at the reception desk called out “Air raid please” (one is inclined in London to say “please” for everything, and one must certainly sauy it out of deference if a VIP like the Angel of Death is announced), but she was in fact telling the boys to close the steel shutters. I shall not forget that large white cloud bellying against the blue in the afternoon and, as my stomach turned over, seeing a flight of silver Spitfires dive into it. I froze with fear, hope, anger, pity. Many times afterwards, Londoners in the black-out heard the sky grunt, grunt, grunt above them, then howl and rock, or saw it go green instead of black, the whole 700 square miles of it twitching like sick electricity and hammered all over by millions of sharp gold sparks as the barrage beat against it like steel against a steel door. The curling magnesium ribbons that came slowly down were a relief to see, in that unremitting noise.

The sky shook London like a rug; the floor boards, the furniture, pictures, the glasses and plates, the curtains, the favourite vases, ferns, clocks, and photographs, the pens on the desks, the ink in the pots danced in their places throughout the night in evil monotony hard to endure. The sky was extravagant; the earth would occasionally come to life in scattered carrotty fires, and on the bad nights, when the docks, the East End, and the City were burned out, the tide being too low to give the firemen water, London turned crimson. Even then, people made the “historic” remark, the remark of experience. Nothing like this, they said, had been seen since 1666. One cloudless August afternoon near the end of the war, green snow fell in minute insulting particles over Holborn. We saw them when we got up from under our desks, where we had ducked when a bomb had fallen a mile or so away in Hyde Park and had blown the leaves off the trees into these mysterious smithereens. It had seemed for a moment, like a new venture of the London climate, which we knew to be capable of anything.

Several hundred thousand dwellings were damaged in the County of London, that is to say more than eighty per cent of the total. And of these, nearly a third were totally destroyed. Little was left of the docks or the City. And about 30,000 people were killed; more than 50,000 injured. On December 29, 1940, all Paternoster Row went, and a favourite phrase, imported from American films, was that “London could take it”, whatever that may mean. London did nothing so exhibitionist, showed none of the characteristics of the prize-fighters’ ring, as seen by publicity agents. London was quite simply morose, fatalistic, frightened, depressed and fell back on that general practicality of mind that counts as calm. The climate had predisposed us to expect the worst and disbelieve in the facts. Fatalism is the English religion. “London can take it” is just the beer talking. At the George in Great Portland Street, I do recall two drunks discussing the kind of funeral they wanted, with a lot of circumstantial detail about the correct amount of flowers, during a bad half-hour. And there is no-one who could not supply a list of old aunts, grandmothers, and so on who stuck the whole thing out, immovably, sustained by a vigorous social disapproval of the whole shemozzle. Private life rules the world.

It was the silence of London in the early evening that struck one. One had never known it to be dead quiet before. The machine had stopped. One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one’s heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I was fire-watching. They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course. One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]

London Perceived. Text V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (4/5).

Warehousemen, Southwark, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived *, 1962:

One goes up-river now enclosed in noise and caught up in work. This is a working river. Hour after hour the radio-telephone is cackling on the tugs. “Calling Sun 17, take the Florian and go in with her. Calling Sun 16, has that little Spaniard moved yet? What’s the matter with her?” Language, old river hands complain, has become politer on the river. Education, they say, is the curse of everything, and the bad-language joke, refined to a high polish of London irony by the characters of W.W. Jacobs (“The langwidge ‘e see fit to use was a’most as much as I could answer”), has lost its anchorage. The Florian is one of the ships lying under the tall sky in the sweep of Gravesend water. It bears down like an hotel upon the tug, and the tug’s cabin boy brings up the eternal mug of strong tea on which working London lives. If you were to go with him to the dock gate, you would see the beauty of the skipper’s job. You would understand why there is all that clever waltzing and pulling this way and that, all that threshing at the stern of the tug as it gently but decisively takes 15,000 tons round a series of sharp right-angle turns into the lock and the alleyways of a dock basin, without touching a quay or any other craft by so much as a graze. These skippers are artists: they bolt down a mutton chop between crise, ruin their digestions, grouse because fog in the estuary has kept them on duty for forty-eith hours without a wink of sleep; but they play their game with the wind, the strong Thames tide, the  current and the heavy traffic.

The Thames is a main road. It is our Grand Canal, and if you half close your eyes at the Pool, the brown warehouses look like palaces in a smoky Venice. The river men have always quarrelled with the City, and nowadays the quarrel is with the roads, for road transport is killing the coastwise traffic. Some say that in fifty years half the area will revert to what it once was: a pleasure ground, and, heaven knows, the warehousemen and wharfingers of London have up to now killed the waterside as a place of pleasure and amusement. Tug skippers growl when they pass the wharves of the Ford plant at Dagenham, where the iron ore is being grabbed out of lighters, swung high, and sent by conveyors to the furnaces, where it turns into red liquid and where the liquid turns into cars and trucks. “It comes in by water and goes out on wheels”, they say. They hate wheels, for wheels are the enemy of water. But, in London, in England generally, nothing is ever given up if it has a point of law attached to it. The docks were built because the mass of shipping in the Pool became impenetrable; but the lightermen and wharfingers fought for their rights, as hard as Defoe fought for the Dissenters, as the City fought against the King, as Wilkes fought for the press, as the early trade unionists fought. The lighters can be loaded on the water side of the ship, free of dock duties. There is usually money at the bottom of London liberties: there has been nothing abstract in the London view of the desirable life.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss at The Photo Exchange; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]

London Perceived. Text V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (3/5)

The Thames: Upper Pool, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived*, 1962:

Twenty-three miles of industrial racket, twenty-three miles of cement works, paper-mills, power stations, dock basins, cranes and conveyors shattering to the ear. From now on, no silence. In the bar at thre Royal Clarence at Gravesend, once a house built for a duke’s mistress, it is all talk of up-anchoring, and everyone has an eye on the ships going down as the ebb begins, at the rate of two a minute. The tugs blaspheme. One lives in an orchestra of chuggings, whinings, the clanking and croaking of anchors, the spinning of winches, the fizz of steam, and all kinds of shovellings, rattlings, and whistlings, broken once in a while by a loud human voice shouting an unprintable word. Opposite are the liners like hotels, waiting to go to Africa, India, the Far East; down come all the traders of Europe and all the flags from Finland to Japan. You take in lungfuls of coal smoke and diesel fume; the docks and wharves send out stenches in clouds across the water: gusts of raw timber, coal gas, camphor, and the gluey, sickly reek of bulk sugar. The Thames smells of goods: of hides, the muttonish reek of wool, the heady odours of hops, the sharp smell of packing cases, of fish, frozen meat, bananas from Tenerife, bacon from Scandanavia,

Before us are ugly places with ancient names where the streets are packed with clownish Cockneys and West Indian immigrants, the traffic heavy. Some of them on the north side between Tilbury and Bethnal Green are slums, dismal, derelict, bombed; some of them so transformed since 1940 by fine building that places with bad names – Ratcliff Highway and Limehouse Causeway and Wapping – are now respectable and even elegant. The old East End has a good deal been replaced by a welfare city since 1946. We pass Poplar, Stepney, Shadwell, Deptford, Woolwich, the Isle of Dogs – where Charles II kept his spaniels – and now mostly dock, with the ships’ bows sticking over the black dock walls and over the streets. We pass Cuckold’s Point, where one of the kings of England gratified a loyal innkeeper by seducing his wife. Until the sixteenth century – according to the delightful Stow, who said he “knew not the fancy for it” – a pair of horns stood on a pole there, a coarse Thames-side warning, perhaps, of the hazards that lie between wind and water.

The Thames, we realize, was for centuries London’s only East to West road or, at any rate, the safest, quickest, and most convenient way that joined the two cities, one swelling out from the Tower and the other from Westminster. And there is another important matter. It is hard now to believe as we go past these miles of wharves and the low-built areas of dockland where one place now runs into another in a string of bus routes, but this mess was once royal. The superb Naval College at Greenwich is the only reminder. It is built on the site of the Palace of Placentia, where Henry VIII, the great Elizabeth and Mary were born. Here was the scene of the luxurious Tudor pageants, the banquetings that went on for weeks, the great wrestling bouts, the tournaments, the displays of archery. It is from “the manor of East Greenwich” and not from Westminster that the charters to Virginia and New Jersey were given in the seventeenth century. It is odd that London began as a collection of manors and that the word “manor” is still thieves’ slang for “London”. At Deptford, nearby, was the Royal Naval Dockyard where all the Tudor ships were built – Drake’s Golden Hind was laid down here. One can see the reason. It is not simply that the Tudors liked building palaces, just as the aristocracy liked building mansions that vied with those of the kings. It is not simply that English monarchs have been a restless lot, although that is true too. The plain reality is that a monarch who has been churched at Westminster needs money; he has to get it from the City; the City gets it from ships and trade, and that trade and its ports must  be defended by navies. Deptford and Greenwich were close to London’s fortune, where the goods came in, whence the adventurers sailed, and where the attackers attacked.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]

London Perceived. Text: V.S. Pritchett, photos Evelyn Hofer (2/5)

The Salisbury, St. Martin’s Lane, 1962. © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.

V.S. Pritchett, writing in London Perceived*, 1962:

The square is our characteristic alternative to the grande place or the piazza. There are no central places, foreigners complain, where “Londoners meet” or stroll along together to pass the time of day. The answer to that is, first, that Lononders do not meet, do not gather, and reject the peculiar notion that people like “running across each other” in public places. They emphatically do not. We are full of clubs, pubs, cliques, coteries, sets, although the influence of mass life are changing us so that even the London public house is becoming public. But most pubs are still divided into bars, screened and provided with quiet mahogany corners where the like-minded can protect themselves against those of different mind. And – one must admit – with different purses.

Clearly, between the saloon bar and the public bar there is, or was, a class division; nowadays, the public bar is where men play darts. In the public bar, there being the thirsty tradition of manual work, you drink your beer by the pint; in the saloon, in the private, you drink it in half-pints; occasionally there is a ladies’ bar, and there ladies – always in need of fortifying, for they have been on their “poor feet” – commonly order stout or “take” a little gin in a refined medicinal way. The pubs catering for the Irish are rather different; the Irish like to swarm in public melancholy, their ideal being, I suppose, a tiled bar resembling a public lavatory a mile long, and with barmen who, as they draw your draught stout, keep an eye on you, show their muscles, and tacitly offer to throw you out by collar and shirt-tail. This is not the London English fashion, which is livelier, yet more judicious, sentimental and moralizing. The London publican cultivates a note of moneyed despondency and the art of avoiding “argument” by discussing the weather. One foggy, snowy morning in a pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, near Gray’s Inn, I hear a customer mention the cold and the snow, and, in doing this, he was simply repeating what every customer had said as he came in.

“Couple of cases of sunstroke in the Feobal’s Road, I hear” said the poker-faced old Weller behind the bar – belonging to that generation of Cockneys who pronounced a “th” as an “f” and were averse to a final “d”. He spoke in the gravelly voice of one about to “cut his bloody froat”.

There are pubs where the same people always meet, where they tell the same stories, where they glance up at the changing London sky and sink into mournful happiness or fatten and redden with natural bawdy – I do not mean dirty – stories but with licence of their own invention. One is reminded that this is the city of the riper passages of Shakespeare and the sexy London papers. London is not puritan; it is respectable – quite another matter. Behind the respectability is the sentimental and fleshly riot. If they can be sure that they are among “a few pals, the male and female Londoners like to abandon themselves. The whited sepulchres turn rosy, the tongues wag, even raucously sing, and the ladies come out with quiet remarks that are surprising. There is a touch of “Knees up, Mother Brown” in all of them; in London, Eros is a shade hearty, and what is elsewhere called passion, in London is called being “friendly”. Friendliness is, of course, double-edged , for it suggests that some would-be friends must be kept out. A little scene I once observed at the bar of the Edinburgh Castle, in Camden Town – the Bob Cratchit country – goes to the heart of this aspect of London manners. A middle-aged couple were having a friendly talk, and an old man, suffering from city loneliness, occasionally “passed a remark” – always an offence – hoping to join in. The lady reached for her large handbag – an emblem of respectability – and took out a pound note  – a sign of grandeur – put it on the counter and called to te old man in a “friendly” voice:

“Have a drink. Say ‘No thank you’; I always say ‘No, thank you’ when a stranger offers me a drink.”

And she put her pound note back in her bag, closed it with a slow snap, and, swollen with savoir-faire in the art of “friendliness” she resumed her private conversation. The Londoner know how to finish things without being, as the saying is, “nasty”. One had witnessed a death, of course.

* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.

[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica,  California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine.D.S.]