The Silent Traveller
I mentioned in a previous entry that I miss that sense of strangeness that I first felt when I moved to London. I have found a way of recapturing it: by looking through the eyes of another foreign visitor.
I recently read The Silent Traveller In London, by Chiang Yee. A Chinese artists living in the UK in the 1930's, Yee published a number of illustrated books giving Englishmen the opportunity to see their own country through Yee's paintings and prose, both of which are simple, elegant, and clean. Yee's book about London has now been reprinted by Signal Press, and it's well worth a read.
Not surprisingly, Yee finds his new home city to be a strange land. "Had I not come to London," he writes, "I should never have known there was a special time for tea."
In ways that go far beyond tea, Yee's sense of time and of the seasons is clearly different than that of his British neighbor's. After describing the intense and vivid Springs of his youth, he writes:
In the busiest London streets, one can hardly notice spring because all the buildings are packed so tightly beside each other... I often think that spring comes to Oxford Street and Picadilly Circus first and to the rest of the streets in London afterwards, because the change in ladies' clothes makes a kind of weathercock. But the streets around the Royal Exchange and Gracechurch Street would be the last destinations for spring, as they are the haunts of men instead of fashionable ladies. Perhaps it will never go to Locksley Street or Pennyfields at all. Another sign of spring in Oxford Street is the window decoration of Selfridge's, and in Piccadilly Circus that of Swan & Edgar's. I feel one can easily tell the seasons in London if one just walks to and fro in front of Selfridge's windows.
And, later, he notes: "Londoners mark out the day when 'summertime' is to begin, although I am sure they would never know it without studying the daily papers."
After living in LA for seven years, it's hard for me to share Yee's sense of dislocation at being unable to notice the change of the seasons from day to day. But I can share his amazement at the change of weather that takes place here over the course of a single day:
It was during summer in London about four years ago. A Swiss friend of mine asked me to take her to Lyndhurst Road off Haverstock Hill. It was a very sunny day, and we walked up from one end of Parkhill Road. A few hundred yards up from Belsize Park tube station, it began raining, but we both knew what London rain would be like, so we just walked on. Soon I felt my head being hit by some particles. Before we realised it, everybody was running and scattering in a very disorderly manner to escape this tremendous shower of hail. It seemed to me that Heaven was pouring down a stream of cube-sugar! We took shelter in a public bar. There were too many people there, and some of them were quite drunk. But it was hardly possible to move and there were even no cars running, and the roads were full of water. For nearly an hour, traffic was stopped. How strange the weather of London is!
Yee is also fascinated by what he sees as the English tendency to dress alike:
"A Chinese lady once told me that she could not tell, on seeing an English lady in the street, whether she belonged to the Royal Family or was only a shopgirl, because all women wore dresses of more or less the same style and colour. The quality of the materials may be slightly different, but to a foreigner, this is not apparent. I then said, 'That comes from English democracy.' But perhaps democracy is helped by nature, because London's weather prevents any further variety."
...or, to put it another way, all these Westerners look alike to him.
I'll leave you with one last passage--a remarkable description of a London fog that no longer exists.
The fog here is not the pure white colour I used to know, but Yellowish gret and sometimes blackish. The particles of it do not strike the face with coolness and refreshment, but my nostrils detect in it the presence of smoke and very oppressive air.
During my first winter here, a friend of mine wrote jokingly from China, asking whether the London fog really was as thick as pea-soup or able to be cut by a knife. I gave a negative answer as I had not then met it at its worst. On the next New Year's day, I was invited to attend a party near Gower Street. Having started out from Hampstead, I was approaching Mornington Crescent when without the slightest warning, the sky suddenly became enveloped in a thick, yellowish shroud, which grew still thicker in the darkness of the gathering twilight. I wondered why the day-time should be turned into night so soon, as it was only about three o'clock. Tempted by this strange sight, I got down from the bus and preferred to walk. Hardly seeing anything, I walked on the pavement and had many amusing adventures; once I struck a pillar-box, then I found myself clutching a man's hands; as we bumped into each other we broke into a laugh but could not see each other's face clearly. At last I thought a light in a shop-window was that of a bus coming nearer me very steadily, so I tried to avoid it by walking closer to the side and did not realise I was walking into a mews by the side of Maple's shop. I felt I had to walk on the way more strongly and heavily than usual, as if I had to push something which was pouring around my body. It was not only I who had to do so, but the buses had to move very slowly as if hindered by the same thing...