Sunday, May 04, 2008

A Tale of One City

The best day of the trip was by far last Monday—Steven and I did a Charles Dickens walking tour that I had found online.

The great thing about London is that there are all these “secret” nooks and crannies; one moment you are in the heart of the bustling 21st-century city, but then you step through an archway and suddenly you find yourself in a quiet cloister transported back to the 19th century (or earlier). Although many of the locations that Dickens knew are gone, a surprisingly many are still extant. Many of the locations focus on Dickens’ later works, which I have not gotten to yet in my chronological progress through his collected works (I am in the middle of David Copperfield [1849–50], his seventh novel and the one smack in the middle of his bibliography). Steven is a big fan of Great Expectations (1860–61) and Bleak House (1852–53).

Without ripping off the text of the online walking tour too much, here is a brief Dickens biography.

Charles John Huffam Dickens was born in Portsmouth on February 7, 1812. His father, John, was a clerk in the naval pay office, and thus the Dickenseseseses moved about a lot as John was transferred to new posts. In 1815, the family moved to London, and two years after that to Kent, where Dickens spent a very happy childhood romping through the countryside.

The party ended in 1822 when John Dickens was transferred back to London and his income drastically cut. John always tended to live a bit beyond his means and soon found himself heavily into debt. His wife, Elizabeth, tried to help by opening a school for young ladies, but that failed. In 1824, John Dickens was arrested for debt and sent to Marshalsea Prison—where Mr. Pickwick is sent to debtor’s prison in The Pickwick Papers. Elizabeth and the younger children went with him. However, Charles was sent to work at Warren’s Blacking Factory, which were the most miserable years of his life.

His early years are recounted in roman à clef fashion in David Copperfield—Dickens is young David, Mr. Micawber is his father, and Murdstone and Grinby’s wine bottling business is Warren’s Blacking Factory.

Charles had wanted to resume his education, but he was left to wander the streets of London, mixing with the wretched hive of scum and villainy to be found in early 19th-century London, which would later inform his books (especially Oliver Twist).

Dickens’ father was released from prison, as his mother-in-law had died and left him some money. Dickens was sent to school at Wellington House Academy but after only two years, thanks to his father’s debts, he was forced to drop out and go back to work, this time for a firm of solicitors in London’s Gray’s Inn. He learned shorthand, and soon establish himself as a shorthand writer at Doctors’ Commons, near St Paul’s Cathedral in the City.

By 1834 he was working for the Morning Chronicle newspaper and became friends with George Hogarth, the paper’s music critic. In 1835 Hogarth became editor of the Evening Chronicle, and invited Dickens to contribute to the paper. The “sketches” Dickens wrote would later be collected as Sketches by “Boz”. (As for the nickname: one of Dickens’ favorite books as a lad was Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield, and, via the character of Moses Primrose—the titular vicar’s son—bestowed the nickname “Moses” on his brother Augustus. For reasons only known to children, “Moses” was pronounced in congested sinus fashion as “Boses” and eventually shorted to just “Boz.” Right. Dickens adopted this nickname himself in 1836.)

Meanwhile, Dickens had also fallen in love with Hogarth’s daughter, Catherine, and on April 2, 1836, the two were married in St Luke’s Church, Chelsea. They honeymooned in Kent, then settled into their first home in Furnival’s Inn, Holborn, which is now where the Prudential Building is located. Soon, the first installments of The Pickwick Papers began appearing and quickly became a bestseller.

In January 1837, Charles and Catherine spawned, and their son Charles was born. The Dickenseseseseses then moved to a larger house in Doughty Street—the site of today’s Dickens House Museum, and the last stop on the walking tour. While living at Doughty Street, he wrote the two books that would cement his reputation: Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby. The family only lived at Doughty Street for a few years, as soon there was no stopping their reproductive proclivities: Dickens would have 10 children. In 1856, he bought the house of his dreams at Gad’s Hill Place in Kent, which would remain his permanent residence for the rest of his life. On June 8, 1870, after a day working on what would be his last, albeit unfinished, novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (or, perhaps, The Mystery of Edw—) he collapsed at the dinner table and died the next evening. He was 58.

All right—enough yammering; let’s get on with the tour.

The children off to nursery and Amy off to work, Steven and I took the Tube to the Chancery Lane stop. We exited to High Holborn Street and passed the Burger King where young Oliver Twist had a Whopper when first arriving in London, and past the O2 store where David Copperfield bought a mobile phone. We began at the Tudor-style Staple Inn. Originally built in 1576, it was damaged (like so many buildings in London) during World War II and considerable restoration was required. It is named the Staple Inn because at one time it provided lodging for wool-staplers. Oddly, it not a Staples today.

Dickens wrote about the Staple Inn in The Mystery of Edw—, and the walking tour tells us,
To experience how little this secret niche has changed since Dickens wrote those words, go right through the ancient gateway and enter Staple Inn itself. As you do so, note the warning just inside the wall on the left that warns you in no uncertain terms: “The Porter Has Orders to Prevent Old Clothes Men and Others From Calling ‘Articles For Sale’ Also Rude Children Playing and No Horses Allowed Within This Inn.”
Alas, there is just a dark rectangle on the wall where this sign used to be.

Still, the passage leads to a quiet courtyard that really does have an enchanting ambiance and sense of stepping back in time. A little further on is the building that served as the residence of the kindly lawyer Mr. Hiram Grewgious in The Mystery of Edw—. There is a stone above the doorway inscribed “PJT 1747.” Dickens comments on this stone that Mr. Grewgious had never “troubled his head” as to its meaning, “…unless to bethink…that haply it might mean Perhaps John Thomas, or Perhaps Joe Tyler.” Or even “Poultry Jests Thusly.” “Porcupines Just Tickle”?

Anyway.

We continue on past the Staple Inn Buildings into Barnard’s Inn and to another “wonderfully evocative inner sanctum.” Steven was impressed to hear that this was where Pip and Herbert Pocket had chambers in Great Expectations.

We backtrack to Furnival Street and turn into Took’s Court, which was re-named Cook’s Court in Bleak House. Number 15—renamed “Dickens House,” was where Mr. Snagsby lived and worked in Bleak House.

We walk along Cursitor Street, turn onto Chancery Lane and cross to the gatehouse of Lincoln’s Inn, which was where Dickens worked for a firm of solicitors (lawyers) when a teenager.

Lincoln’s Inn is one of London’s four Inns of Court. The redbrick building (the Old Hall) dates back to 1489, and was where the Lord Chancellor’s Court met outside of legal terms. It was also here that Bleak House opens:
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping, and the waterside pollution of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out in the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships…
This passage was also the inspiration for John Carpenter’s movie The Fog, which few people realize was a rather loose adaptation of Bleak House. Carpenter took some liberties with the plot; the case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce became Adrienne Barbeau chased by dead sailors wielding meat hooks. They don’t mention this at all at the Dickens House Museum.

But I digress...
Bleak House continues:
And…in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in His High Court of Chancery.

Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, too assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds, this day, in the sight of heaven and earth.
There is also a chapel, open from noon to 2:30 pm (we were there before noon). The tour tells us that the chapel’s foundation stone was laid in 1620 by the metaphysical poet John Donne (1571/2–1631), who served as the inn’s preacher between 1616 and 1622. Whenever a member of the inn’s governing body dies, the chapel bell is rung to mark their passing. This death knell thus inspired John Donne to write “Never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Fortunately, it tolled not for us, so we were able to continue the tour., although the directions were a little unclear at this point. Ultimately, we did find New Square, built in 1685 (jeez, how old is Old Square, then?). This Square has changed very little since Dickens day. We pass the gardens and the gardeners shed (known in the inn as “the head gardeners castle”). The green tractor was featured in Bleak House, where Miss “Two Sheds” Flite observes, “A good tractor ‘tis. Vroom vroom!”

We pass through the gates of Lincoln’s Inn and head into Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is London’s largest square, although Steven was hoping for a triangle and I a trapezoid. It was in this square in Barnaby Rudge (1840–41) that the Gordon Rioters gathered.
The walking tour winds around the square. Did you know that it is London’s largest square? I saw a curious sign; ah, I never will master the difference between British and American English. What we call birds differ from what the Brits call birds. Here, we call them rats. Talk about two nations divided by a common tongue...

But I digress...

The tour includes a stop at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, which both Steven and I have already been to, so we bypassed it and kept on trucking.

Number 65 Lincoln’s Inn Fields bears a blue plaque commemorating the building as the former home of William Marsden (1796–1867) one of the great figures of 19th-century healthcare and founder of the Royal Free and the Royal Marsden hospitals. As the story goes, in 1827, Marsden found a young woman dying on the steps of St. Andrews Church and could not get her admitted to any London hospital without a letter of recommendation. (Damn HMOs.) Ergo, he founded the Free Hospital in Greville Lane in 1828. Queen Victoria became its patron in 1837, and asked that it be known as “The Royal Free Hospital,” and it still remains operating under that name in Hampstead.

Numbers 59 and 60 date back to 1641 and are collectively known as Lindsey House, after its first owner, Robert Bertie, the first Earl of Lindsey, Charles I’s commander-in-chief who was killed at Edgehill in 1642, the first major battle of the English Civil War. A plaque also commemorates Spencer Perceval (1762–1812) the only English Prime Minister to have been assassinated: he was shot in the lobby of the House of Commons by a failed businessman from Liverpool who blamed Perceval for his financial problems. Hmm...now there’s a thought...

The building comprising numbers 57 and 58 dates from the 18th century and the grand porch was designed by nutty Sir John Soane. Dickens’ friend, business adviser, and primary biographer, John Forster (1812 –1865) lived at number 58. Mr. Podsnap in Our Mutual Friend (1864–65) was based on Forster. And the house was also the residence for Mr. Tulkinghorn in Bleak House.

We continue down Portsmouth Street past the curiously named Olde Curiosity Shop. The building dates from 1567 and bears the legend “Immortalized by Charles Dickens.” Well...not really, as Dickens writes at the end of The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) that the shop owned by Little Nell’s rock-stupid grandfather was “long ago pulled down.” Indeed, the walking tour tells us that,
In a letter to The Echo in 1883, a Mr. Charles Tesseyman confessed that his brother, who had dealt in old china, books and paintings from the premises between 1868 and 1877, had added the “Immortalized by” appellation to his shop front for “business purposes.” Following his brother’s death in 1877, the new tenant painted over his name but left the claim displayed on the wall. Around 1881, an American journalist writing about Dickensian landmarks arrived at the shop and “straightaway wrote an article in Scribner’s Monthly … [assuring] …his readers that this was the old original Old Curiosity shop of Dickens.”
Down the street is the George IV pub. Although rebuilt since Dickens’ time, this is thought to have been the original of the Magpie and Stump, where in The Pickwick Papers, some “choice spirit” assembled and Jack Bamber tells Mr. Pickwick some bizarre and gruesome stories of “queer” law clients.

It was before 11:00 am, so there was no stopping at the pub... we do have standards, low though they be.

We backtrack to Lincoln’s Inn Fields and past the Royal College of Surgeons, built by George Dance and James Lewis between 1806 and 1813. In 1835 it was completely rebuilt by Sir Charles Barry.

In Bleak House, Mr. Boythorn says that lawyers should have their “necks wrung and their skulls arranged in Surgeon’s Hall, for the contemplation of the whole profession, in order that its younger members might understand from actual measurement in early life, how thick skulls may become!”

We actually did want to, but alas the museum was closed on Mondays. Doh!

The walking tour then says “Continue ahead back towards the gate of Lincoln’s Inn.” “Ahead back”? What? We walk back (ahead?) through Lincoln’s Inn Field, which, did you know, is London’s largest square?


We walk past the Royal Courts of Justice, which comprise the Civil courts and also the appeal courts, both Civil and Criminal of England. As we walked past, a barrister complete with black robe and wig, ran down the street and into the building, looking remarkably like John Cleese. I wonder if his client would be found “not guilcup.”

Across the street is the Seven Stars Pub, which dates back to 1602, and is named for the seven provinces of the Netherlands. By this time, it was after 11:00, so we stopped in for a pint, saying hello to the friendly pub cat.

By this time, a beautiful sunny morning had given way to “pratt weather” and it started to rain, so we moistly made our way into Bell Yard, which is the title of Chapter 15 in Bleak House.

It has changed dramatically since then (we were told; I don’t recall it myself), but it was here that the four orphaned Neckett children lived in an upper room in Bleak House. By the way, it was also in Bell Yard that Mrs Lovett had her pie shop whose ingredients were provided by Sweeney Todd...

We pass out onto Fleet Street (where I sure as heck was not going to look for a barbershop) and encounter the Temple Bar, a large monument in the middle of the road atop which sits a bronze griffin. This monument marks the boundary between the cities of London and Westminster and is where Fleet Street ends and the Strand begins.

However, this is not the original Temple Bar, which was removed 1878. In Bleak House, Dickens describes it as a “leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation.” Heh. Anyway, in 1888 the monument was exiled to Theobald’s Park in Hertfordshire. In 2004, it was brought back, restored, and now sits next to St Paul’s Cathedral.

We cross the street, avoiding the Demon Traffic of Fleet Street, and take shelter from the rain in the Childs Bank. The building dates from 1878, and its predecessor was featured in A Tale of Two Cities as Tellson’s Bank and is described:
an old-fashioned place even in the year 1780. It was very small, very dark, very ugly, very incommodious. Any one of the partners would have disinherited his son on the question of rebuilding Tellson’s. Thus it had come to pass that Tellson’s was the triumphant perfection of inconvenience.
Well, not entirely inconvenient; Steven took this opportunity to avail himself of the ATM in the lobby. No word on whether the predecessor of this ATM featured in A Tale of Two Cities—or perhaps A Tale of Two Citis, if Citibank were involved.

As soon as one enters the bank, there is glass case on the wall opposite the door in which 10 old guns are exhibited. The bank bought the guns in June 1780 to defend the premises during the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots described by Dickens in Barnaby Rudge.

We backtrack along Fleet Street and head through a gateway into Middle Temple Lane. Charles Lamb once said that “a man would give something to be born in such places.” It is my intention to someday be born here. Anyway this is one of London’s four Inns of Court, where barristers have their chambers. This is yet another “tranquil oasis that has been left untouched by time and progress—which is exactly why I like it so.

Middle Temple Dining Hall was built in the 1570s and is occasionally open to the public (though not when we were there—which worked out because I had neglected to bring my old SU ValiDine card). There is a fountain, which features in Martin Chuzzlewit (1843–44); Ruth Pinch and John Westlock conducted an early part of their romance around this fountain.

“Brilliantly the Temple fountain sparkled in the sun, and laughingly its liquid music played, and merrily the idle drops of water danced and danced, and peeping out in sport among the trees, plunged lightly down to hide themselves.” Well, it was raining, but other than that it’s a fairly accurate description.

Steven was interested to see Garden Court, which was where Pip was living in Great Expectations.
We head into Pump Court, (the fire pumps were once located here). There is a cool sundial high on the left wall, although damned if I can figure out what the heck time it is with it. It bears the legend “Shadows we are and like shadows depart.” There is no truth that the original legend was Groucho Marx’s quote, “Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.”
Through another archway we come to the Temple Church, named for the Knights Templar, the monastic military order founded in 1118 to protect pilgrims on the road to Jerusalem. This was their London citadel. This isn’t an Umberto Eco walking tour, so I shan’t dwell on the Knights Templar. Steven tells me that this church also figured in The Da Vinci Code, but I have shut any recollection of that book out of my mind.

We were eager to see the inside, but the Church didn’t open until noon. So we stayed out of the rain for a bit. Noon came and went, and still the door was locked...until we discovered that the proper entrance was round the other side.

As soon as one enters, one is confronted by the effigies of knights on the floor, which is a tad creepy. Still, it’s a very cool church.
Happily, the rain had stopped, so we left the church and passed Goldsmith’s Buildings and the grave of Oliver Goldsmith (1730–74), who was one of Dickens’ favorite authors. We pass Prince Henry’s Room, dating from 1610 and named after the eldest son of King James I. It was once but is no longer (drat!) a tavern called the Prince’s Arms. In Dickens’s childhood, the building was occupied by Mrs. Salmon’s Waxworks, to which “perspiring Wax Works” David Copperfield was sent.

Back on Fleet Street, we come across St. Dunstan’s Church. We wanted to go into the church, but there was some kind of service taking place, so we decided not to crash the party.

Notably, St. Dunstan’s clock dates from 1671 and is said to have been the first clock in London with a double-sided face, and the first to have the minutes marked on the dial. Every 15 minutes, two stone giants strike the bells alongside the clock. In David Copperfield, David and his eccentric aunt, Betsy Trotwood, make a journey to see the giants strike the bells. The church also plays a major role in Dickens’ Christmas novella The Chimes.
Around back of the church in a little alcove are three of London’s oldest statues, which once stood over Ludgate (or Lud Gate): King Lud and his two sons. Lud was the legendary founder of London.
The next stop on the walking tour sounds inviting: “dive into the grim, dark passageway named Hen and Chickens Court.” We did, and found ourselves in “a chilling, claustrophobic courtyard, where beneath your feet, hefty iron grilles cover precarious drops into mean looking cellars where all manner of horrors might be lurking.” Why are we here? Well, this is the back of 185 Fleet Street where Sweeney Todd—“the Demon Barber of Fleet Street”—had his shop. Sweeney Todd was fictional, of course, but his tales first appeared 1847. The stories centered around his habit of killing his clients and carrying the them via an underground tunnel to Bell Yard, where Mrs. Lovett baked them into meat pies. (When I was a kid, we saw the musical in Boston starring George Hearn and Angela Lansbury—it remains one of the only musicals I can stand. I have not seen the recent movie.)

Oddly, we started getting hungry at this point—a meat pie would go over very well at this point. We headed back out to Fleet Street and pause outside the 17th-century gatehouse of Clifford’s Inn, which features in a passage from Our Mutual Friend. (John Rokesmith, having followed Mr. Boffin along Fleet Street, asks if he would “object to turn aside into this place—I think it is called Clifford’s Inn—where we can hear one another better than in the roaring street?” Mr. Boffin “glanced into the mouldy little plantation, or cat-preserve, of Clifford’s Inn, as it was that day, in search of a suggestion. Sparrows were there, cats were there, dry rot and wet-rot were there, but it was not otherwise a suggestive spot.” How inviting!)

We backtrack to Fleet Street and head into Johnson’s Court (as in Samuel Johnson of the dictionary), whose house is nearby. (We visited there when I was in London in August) This also means that the next stop on the walking tour is my favorite pub in all of London, Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese which, as it turns out, was also a favorite of Dickens’.

The walking tour tells us:
Rebuilt in 1667, this rambling tavern of creaking floors, cosy rooms and snug corners, possesses a timeless ambience that keeps the contemporary world firmly at bay. Portraits of those who have worked and supped here over the centuries gaze fondly down from its dark wooden walls. Dr Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mark Twain, Alfred Tennyson and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle—to name but a few—have all ducked beneath its low beamed ceilings to absorb its 17th-century atmosphere. Dickens, too, was a regular, and the table to the right of the ground floor restaurant’s fireplace is said to have been his favoured place.
We had lunch there, and I got to sit in Dickens’ spot.
We are also told that:
This is believed to have been the pub that Dickens had in mind when, following Charles Darnay’s acquittal on charges of high treason in A Tale of Two Cities, Sydney Carton invites him to dine: “Drawing his arm through his own” Sydney leads him to Fleet Street “up a covered way, into a tavern… where Charles Darnay was soon recruiting his strength with a good plain dinner and good wine.”
I may even have eaten the original Scottish roast beef that Dickens ate.

Fed, beveraged, and de-crypted, we set out for the remainder of the walking tour. We, sadly, leave Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese and head toward Gough Square, behind the statue of Dr. Johnson’s cat. We head onto Printer Street, Little New Street, and onto Shoe Lane toward the Holborn Viaduct. Naturally, we cannot but keep repeating, “Why a duck?” Here is where Fagin’s den of iniquity was located in Oliver Twist. It’s gone now (pity), removed when the Holborn Viaduct—the world’s first flyover—was built in the late 1860’s. Why a duck?

We head back to St. Andrews Street and St. Andrew’s Church. As we exit the church and cross over St Andrew Street, we “paus[e] by the trees to glance back at the church clock, just as Bill Sikes did in Oliver Twist, whilst telling Oliver it was ‘hard upon seven! You must step out.’” Are we complete dorks, or what?
We cross the road and turn onto Holborn to head to Steven’s favorite building in London: the Prudential Building. It was here that Charles Dickens took out a home insurance policy—no, no, no, that’s not true. Actually, the Prudential Building was erected on the site of Furnival’s Inn, where Dickens lived from 1834 to 1837. It was during his tenure here that he began The Pickwick Papers. A bust of Dickens marks the location.
Even without the Dickens connection, the Prudential Building is pretty impressive, one of the last great Gothic revival building (it was built in 1879). Prudential relocated in 2002, for reasons passing understanding. Perhaps the insurance premiums for the building were too steep.
Anyway, we went back to Holborn and continue, as the tour tells us, “until just before you arrive at the Cittie of Yorke Pub (it has a clock outside).” It did not have a clock outside, and to console ourselves over this lack, we thought it best to go in and have a pint.

Refreshed, we turned into Gray’s Inn to South Square. Note that this is not the largest square in London, which is still Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Gray’s Inn Hall (built in 1556) is on the opposite side of South Square. In Pickwick Papers, Dickens writes, “Clerk after clerk hastened into the square by one or other of the entrances, and looking up at the hall clock accelerated or decreased his rate of walking according to the time at which his office hours nominally commenced.” In The Uncommercial Traveller, he writes, “I look upon Gray’s Inn…as one of the most depressing institutions in brick and mortar, known to the children of men.” Jeepers, what a grouch. But then, this is where he was stuck working for lawyers in his youth; Number 1 South Square was the office of Ellis and Blackmore Solicitors. I think we all have similar reactions to the locations of horrible jobs we have had.

And then, finally, we head to Doughty Street where the walking tour ends at the Dickens House Museum. He moved there in March 1837, and by the time he moved out in December 1839, he was world famous.

We tarried in the gift shop, where I picked up a copy of Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens biography—though, for some reason, only the abridged version is still available. (Discussing the writing of A Tale of One City; The Pickwick Paper; Bleak Apartment; Great Expectation; etc.) The woman in the gift shop was nonplused by my suggestion that they sell souvenir Charles Dickens beards.

The walking tour over, Steven and I repaired to a nearby pub, where we got to talking with the Australian barmaid. She had only been in London a short while but found it a bit too “mellow” a city for her liking—but this is exactly why I like it (she was also in her early 20s while I am 40, which could have something to do with it).

It was getting on toward 2:00 pm, and Steven had to go pick up the kiddies, so I continued on, visiting some bookstores (including an excellent science-fiction bookstore on Shaftesbury called Forbidden Planet—but then I think all science-fiction bookstores have that name). I also found a great record store near Charing Cross Road called Fopps where I found some classic British progressive rock for £5 apiece (even at $10, that’s still pretty good). Yeah, I know I can find anything I want online, but I truly enjoy browsing in book and record stores and finding random things that I had been looking for. Alas, even in London, book and record stores are disappearing; things are just getting less and less fun. I stopped at a pub or two to review my loot, then made one last foray to the Apple Store on Regent Street to check e-mail (nothing urgent—quel surprise). Then back to Hackney.

I flew back on Tuesday; another uneventful yet pleasant flight (some turbulence over Nova Scotia was little upsetting, but other than that, nothing horrible). The baggage took a while to make it up to Baggage Claim, and I made it to NJ Transit and then to Amtrak with about three minutes to spare.

Back in Saratoga, the weather for the last three days has been more London-like than it was in London.

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