Book Review – Converting the current
Imagined London by Anna Quindlen (pub National Geographic, Sep 2004 ISBN 0-7922-4207-6)
March 9th 2007
Tavistock Square, London, “an enormous slab of rock….with the inscription, To all those who have established and are maintaining the right to refuse to kill, which turns out to be a memorial to conscientious objectors.” The first I had ever heard of such a thing.
My father, a conscientious objector, had survived the Blitz, driving for The Friends’ Ambulance Unit and was waiting for his girlfriend at a theatre, some time after the arrival in the UK of American forces. My mother to be was late and the tickets were too precious not to be used. Dad picked up a Wave officer and took her to see the play instead.
I am so proud – not only did my dad buck the trend – Yanks – over sexed, overpaid and over here – but there is a memorial to men like him.
Thanks then to Anna Quindlen, whose book, Imagined London is based on a love of a London first encountered in books then embraced in adulthood, a loving imagination that seeks reality, at first through the pages of books, and than at first hand. Thanks too for an enquiring mind, far removed from the sort of imagination that once brought us Dick van Dyke’s Cockney accent in Mary Poppins, and which so easily trivialises things that matter; my wife knew one of the Titanic survivors and the film of that name we found a travesty, an abuse of others’ suffering.
An enduring quality of her writing is Quindlen’s self-conscious apology for herself. When she arrives in London for the first time there is no elevator in the hotel and her heart thumps, not because of the heavy cases, but because, “I had managed to use the word lift without thinking twice about it. Lift. Loo. Treacle. Trifle. I silently practised my English. Trainers. Waistcoats. Salad rolls. Then relief, “I had purchased an adaptor! I could convert the current!” For me the attraction and the power of this writer is this directness and lack of guile, which renders what to an American may seem a weakness on her part, into a strength.
A few years ago an American friend and colleague addressed girls in the school where we taught. “I require that you be in your rooms by ten o’clock.” Later that evening I told her how interesting I had found her choice of words. Immediately she adopted Quindlen’s mode, apologising for her misuse of what she seemed to regard as my language. And this was a seriously savvy American woman amongst whose uncle is numbered a very senior member of the US administration. Hastily I explained how delightful it was to hear the English subjunctive, so long neglected in the UK, used to such good effect; the girls too were in no doubt that madame really meant business.
Quindlen looks at a royal catafalque in Westminster Abbey and explains how, as a child, she adopted Elizabeth the First as a role model and speaks of her “refusing to be demoted and undervalued because of her gender, determined to be the greatest ruler England had ever known.” Quindlen looks beyond the niceties of republican argument, or sense of superiority, to a shared history, a shared imagination and shared influences which, along with our shared language, give a basis for a real connection between peoples.
Quindlen admits that she is Anglophile – and I try to imagine anyone hating their native tongue and all that goes with it. She’s listening to the band of the foot guards as they march past her in Birdcage Walk. They are playing the theme from Austin Powers and she asks, “Is it really the theme from the silly cinematic satire of swinging England, or is it an ancient march tune co-opted by Hollywood producers? These are the sorts of questions that being an Anglophile tends to produce under the weight of long history and literary familiarity.” Like my American friends, she understands her own country and mine and sometimes she understands my country better than I do.
She continues, examining a familiar cry, “America is the future.”
“An easy glib explanation for a shift in geopolitics that has taken place slowly, over centuries. But it is not entirely true. London has the trick of making its past, its indelible incredible past, always part of its present. And for that reason it will always have meaning for the future, because of all that it can teach about disaster, survival, and redemption. It is all there in the streets. It is all there in the books.”
E.M. Forster’s delightful description of London’s houses and streets, on Charles Dicken’s seeing nothing but streets in his immediate neighbourhood, on Mrs Dalloway’s opinion that walking in London was preferable to walking in the country and magistrate Henry Fielding’s telling and still relevant view of London streets as ideal for the concealment of young orphans who have disappeared. Quindlen has walked the talk and knows the place better than many of us. And it is quietly flattering, just as flattery should be, this notion that we and our capital are worthy of serious scrutiny.
But we must also accept criticism, for flattery is two-edged and appreciation accepted confers a right to criticise, and a duty to reflect upon criticism. Of Londoners she writes, “They are cordial strangers, happy to proffer directions, but content then to be on their way without the sort of where-you-from-how-you-like-it pleasantries that would be the hallmark of any such American exchange. As an experiment I once stood on a corner of the Strand with an open map and a pronounced expression of confusion for fifteen minutes. I can assure you that if I did this on Broadway someone would offer directions, since New Yorkers are indefatigable know-it-alls. In London, not a single passer-by volunteered.”
I too can vouch for this, not as a result of visiting the States, but lost, near Victoria Station, I approached a stranger whose street map was showing from his coat pocket. Upon my asking whether he knew a certain street he whipped out the map and explained in an unmistakable American accent, and with typical directness, that he did not know the street but would help me to find it. Whether he was a New York know-it-all, or one from Philadelphia – Anna Quindlen’s home town, I don’t know, but about this she is absolutely spot on. And this matey, genuine helpfulness is obviously exportable.
London’s trials and tribulations over the centuries are set against the relatively recent history of the United States, culminating in the literature of London and the Second World War. Quindlen acknowledges that, “the small island nation from which we sprang has seen hardship that we cannot compete with,” and warns her fellow countrymen not, “to be disdainful of any London neighborhood where the newly built has taken the place of what went before.” This is the voice of a friend, who appreciates something at the heart of our nation, not out of sentiment but with kindly realism, when she likens the UK to a “wise, slightly doddery uncle,” and reminds all of us that, “The great days of the UK are over and position and privilege now lie inevitably across the Atlantic.”
Quindlen commends us for out ability to adapt. I do wonder how she sees the UK’s adaptation to US determination before the second Gulf War and, afterwards, the US attorney general’s refusal to answer questions here about the use of UK bases for the business of extraordinary rendition. Like our government perhaps, she might see little opportunity for it to exercise even some limited influence over the White House.
She does provide a timely lesson for us, however, in influencing and being influenced by friends. Perhaps she would go further – our imperial eclipse may mean the end of power, but it does not have to be an end of influence and friendships that endure – The Commonwealth is testimony to that, and the US is one of our few former colonies not to belong. Our decline is not something that we should fear, especially if we ally ourselves to her kind of special relationship rather than to the one about which we have heard far too much in recent years.
One chapter, the thirteenth, deals with Quindlen’s learning “Real English, not the tongue Americans speak,” from books and, in joking at her own expense, she makes us realise our own capacity for misunderstanding and for not making ourselves understood; it is difficult not to smile at the thought of a rather forthright nanny from Manchester insisting on “dummy” for “pacifier.” But they got on and their ability to do so, while retaining their own versions of the tongue and yet adopting the other version when helpful, is perhaps a model of a proper special relationship.
So, should I ever manage to emulate my father and pick up an American woman in London, I hope she turns out to be Anna Quindlen and an opportunity to try out this newly discovered friendship.