An English Heritage plaque at Hampton Court Palace Gardens. Photo by Elliott Brown via Flickr (CC BY-ND-SA 2.0)
In an essay at White Noise, Richard Wallace considers his chances at being memorialized with one of the blue English Heritage plaques that dot historic homes in London’s (mostly well-heeled) boroughs:
I mostly think money, power and status are chimeras, eliding the serious parts of the human project… Then I periodically remember those English Heritage blue plaques that go on the walls of noteworthy dwellings, and I think: no. Fuck goodness and principle. I want to get so famous they give my house a medal.
Lack of marketable skills aside, an informal of analysis of plaque recipients reveals the real predictor of plaques: class.
There’s a distinct sense that a certain type of people are predisposed to plaque-worthiness, and the reason is probably what class-progressives already know: that it’s so much easier to get recognised for your achievements if you get a good start in life. This shouldn’t diminish the accomplishment of the great; nor should it mollify less affluent mediocrities. But when we look at these plaques, we are forced remember that English history is uniquely bound to inequality, to people ascending the apex of the world on a staircase of hunched shoulders. Repeat, repeat: David Cameron and his Bullingdon brothers, Theresa May and her fields of wheat. Blue Plaque England is not a place where we can all live. Kensington’s too small for everyone. But as unfair as it is, English Heritage plaques merely record history; nobody can argue that class division is not British. The writing is on the wall.
Grenfell Tower in West London, Rick Findler/PA Wire URN:33838594
Londoner Tom Lamont spent months reporting — talking to residents, grieving family members, firefighters and their families, community members, recovery workers, and more — to produce this GQ piece on the ins, outs, and aftermath of the the Grenfell Tower disaster. As London spends billions to strip the flammable cladding off other buildings around the city, the people involved with Grenfell Towers are still trying to find peace (or maybe absolution) for the decisions they made during the fire.
Firefighters that night led, carried, and dragged residents away from the fire. And they left residents behind to it. They made hundreds of no-win decisions on June 14, about whether to help those in peril in the stairwell or whether to push on past and try to make it to those farther up. The handing over of a firefighter’s breathing equipment to civilians (always a dangerous temptation) is forbidden by the London Fire Brigade—but it happened, I was told, and it was later forgiven, part of a brigade-wide amnesty on those everyday procedures ignored by firefighters in in this frenzied, dirty, impossible evacuation.
Outside, firefighters had to aim water hoses at one of their own trucks, which had been ignited by all the falling cladding. For many of the evacuating residents, the most terrifying parts of their escape took place once they were outside, running through the area directly in front of the building, which had become a no-man’s-land of tumbling metal. Firefighters began making shuttle runs back and forth, ferrying out evacuees under riot shields.
At 2 A.M., 3 A.M., 4 A.M., hours after the first firefighters had arrived, residents were still trapped. Still waving, still shouting: “Fucking help me.” By 5 A.M., hardly any people were visible in Grenfell’s windows. Firefighters on the ground held their heads, and panted, and were dismally honest with one another: “We’re not going to get everybody out.” When, earlier in the night, they saw a man on the 14th floor, hanging from a windowsill, knotted bedsheets trailing beneath him, they screamed at him to get back inside.
LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 14: Two women hug as a girl holds a placard reading 'Justice for Grenfell, we demand the truth' during a silent march to mark the two month anniversary of the Grenfell tower fire on August 14, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
At CityLab, Henry Wismayer reports on the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire. The worst fire disaster in London since the Blitz during World War II, the blaze claimed 80 lives. To outsiders, England may appear to be a “a paragon of functioning multiculturalism,” but the Grenfell fire has become the country’s “Katrina moment” — the catastrophic event which exposes society’s egregious treatment of and contempt for its poor.
Grenfell has become a grisly metaphor for all that is squalid about the British capital, unfettered free-market capitalism, and society at large.
Against a backdrop of economic anxiety that has defined global politics for the last decade, these attitudes have insinuated themselves into the national consciousness. Britain’s right-wing press has spent years pumping out a steady ooze of anomalous stories about welfare scroungers. This project has portrayed social housing as a repository for the idle and shiftless, meaning that the grievances of tenants, like those in Grenfell Tower, can be dismissed as grumbles of entitlement. The truth, painful to admit, is that most Londoners didn’t care about the welfare of Grenfell residents until the fire betrayed the extent of their neglect. It was this prevailing atmosphere, as much as any individual political decision, which permitted someone in a boardroom, thumbing through cost projections of a proposed tower-block refurbishment, to think, “Let’s use the cheaper, flammable stuff.”
Details of the Grenfell fire victims belie such lazy stereotypes. Among the dead were Khadija Saye, a promising photographer whose work was recently feature at the Venice Biennale, and Mohammad Alhajali, a Syrian refugee who was studying civil engineering in the hope of eventually returning home to help rebuild his war-torn country. Young people with talent and dreams. But before we read their obituaries, they were anonymous shadows from the demimonde, pre-judged by dint of where they live and how much they earn.
There is, then, in the shape of Grenfell, in the tragedy of its victims and the fury of its survivors, an indelible message for the wider world. It is simply that the depredations wrought by breakneck gentrification—the yawning inequality, the dispossession, the growing cultural sterility—can only be justified through subscription to the idea that a person’s value to a city is commensurate to how much profit they generate, which is to say that people like those who died in Grenfell were worth nothing at all.
After a quick stop at a Jamaican food stall at the outdoor Borough Market, I parted with my lunchtime companion and began my solitary journey through the heart of London, with City Hall on my right, the Thames to my left and the low winter sun above me. Though most of my walks through the city tended to be directionless — at least mentally, if not also geographically — today I had a purpose: I was looking for my “third place.”
My first place is a flatshare in North London — an area characterized alternately as middle class; an area overrun with affluent, well-groomed “yummy mummies”; and as the intellectual hub of London. It’s the family-friendly part of the city, but it’s also rapidly falling victim to the kind of hipster gentrification that has already affected its trendier cousin, East London. It also has some of the city’s poorest and most crime-ridden areas, such as Tottenham, where unarmed 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot and killed by police in 2011, sparking the infamous London riots.
My second place, an office in Kensington, the richest borough of London — provides me with a vastly different version of the city than my first place.
I needed to find my third place, the place that could connect the authentic me, the persona I am at home, with my surroundings — with my wider home. Since moving to London from the north of England five years before, something had been missing for me — some deeper connection with the city. I hoped finding my third place would give personal meaning to the random masses of concrete and strangers I happened to live among.
Photo by Colin via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Iain Sinclair, in the London Review of Books, mourns his constantly-transforming city. There was never just one London, but for Sinclair, London as he understood it is crumbling, and his essay is a loving, fascinating, melancholy, rollicking look at how technology and globalization are transforming urban spaces.
Drifting in a lazy, autopilot trajectory, my own cloud of unknowing, down Bethnal Green Road towards the pop-up shopping hub by the London Overground station at Shoreditch, I register a notice in a window that says: ‘No coffee stored overnight.’ Once upon a time, white vans (for white men) were nervous about their tools and ladders, but now the value is in coffee, barista coffee, gold dust: the marching powder of the shared-desk classes who are hitting it hard in recovered container stacks and bare-brick coffee shops glowing with an occult circle of pale screens and fearful concentration. Why do these digital initiates always look as if the screens hold bad news, as if the power is on the point of shutting down permanently, leaving them disconnected in outer darkness?
That coffee sign was a border marker, preparing me for a series of designated smoking areas, puddles of stubbed-out cigarettes, and a chain of opportunist businesses promoted by oxymorons: FREE CASH, IMPERIAL EQUITY, CITY SHEEPSKINS, RESPONSIBLE GAMBLING, TAPASREVOLUTION, PROPER HAMBURGER. And of course Sainsbury’s Local. When, in truth, there is no local left. Those signs confirm the dissolution of locality. The last London, Smart City, is nervous about unreformed localism, nuisance quarters with medieval borders clinging to outmoded privileges, like schools, pubs, markets or hospitals hungry for funds and resistant to improving the image of construction.
I once burst into tears while doing the flat of an obsessive Italian shoe-hoarder. He had hardly any stuff except the basics — bed, fridge, cooker, telly — and hundreds of boxes of Italian designer shoes. The only “art” on the wall was a yellowing Polaroid of himself as a boy in Italy, smiling at the seaside. Tanned and shoeless, young and carefree. How did he go from that to this, working 70-plus hours a week to pay rent on his nice but pokey flat full of shoes? It might look like cleaning, but every job feels a bit Miss Marple-ish. I am looking for clues, though I’m never really sure what the crime is.
Sherlock Holmes feels uncannily contemporary these days — from his dizzying array of post-hipsterish quirks (Cocaine user! Virtuosic violin player! Exotic tobacco aficionado!) to a social aloofness that feels straight out of a Millennial INTP‘s playbook. (His knack for Twitter-ready aphorisms doesn’t hurt, either.) I’ve been rereading Conan Doyle’s stories for almost 20 years, and the guy has never felt more fresh.
After more than a century of massive, ever-splintering fandom, Holmes is still a commercial juggernaut, a literary character at once instantly recognizable and endlessly customizable. How many fictional creations could plausibly be portrayed, in the span of four years, by Robert Downey, Jr., Benedict Cumberbatch, and Ian McKellan (whose Mr. Holmes will be out in theaters later this month)?
The Holmes universe has long fractured into an ever-expanding multiverse, one in which the original canon is but one galaxy (and a minor one, at that) among many apocryphal ones. From Sherlockian cosplay in the Swiss alps to a family’s archives in Illinois, here are five stories that speak to the ubiquity and longevity of one Victorian detective.
What do Franklin Roosevelt, Isaac Asimov, and Neil Gaiman have in common? They were (and in Gaiman and Asimov’s case, still are) members of the Baker Street Irregulars, a semi-secret, tightly-knit scholarly society dedicated to The Game — the study of Sherlock Holmes as if he were a real, non-fictional figure. Jenny Hendrix digs into the history of this strange literary club.
It’s counterintuitive to think of the British Museum as a happening spot, but for a long time its reading room served as a premier gathering place for London’s brainy bohemians. In the 1880s, these included radicals like George Bernard Shaw, Henry Havelock Ellis, and Eleanor Marx, Karl Marx’s youngest daughter. They worked there, and they talked during smoke breaks and visits to Bloomsbury tea shops. They moved fluidly between politics and the arts, deploring factory conditions as fervently as they dissected Ibsen’s plays. The reading room was a vital seedbed for such Victorian-era social-reform causes as women’s rights and trade-union organizing.
It was also a pickup scene. Edward Aveling, a science lecturer, playwright, and political activist—and a notorious flirt—described the reading room as “in equal degrees a menagerie and a lunatic asylum” and made a tongue-in-cheek proposal that it be segregated by sex so as to bring about “less talking and fewer marriages.”
—Karen Olsson writing in Bookforum about a new biography of Eleanor Marx. Eleanor Marx’s relationship with her longtime partner Edward Aveling was among the liaisons fostered in the reading room. The reading room in question has since closed; according to Olsson, its library holdings were transferred elsewhere in 1997.
[Rosemary] Tonks’s first poetry collection, Notes on Cafés and Bedrooms, was published in 1963; her second and final one, Iliad of Broken Sentences, in 1967. She interweaves images of her years in Asia and Africa with snapshots of bohemian London: desert oases and mirages, jazz and cocktails. True to the first collection’s title, the poems carry a mood of chic urban dissipation. “For my fierce hot-blooded sulkiness / I need the café,” she asserts in the opening of “Diary of a Rebel.” In “The Sofas, Fogs and Cinemas,” the narrator complains wryly about a faux intellectual rambling on about opera and the “international situation”: He “digs himself into the sofa. / He stays there up to two hours in the hole—and talks.” Across the two books, lovers meet at dusk, flaneurs wander dusty streets, and conversations last all night.
Barometers, full of contempt, controlling moody isobars.
Sumptuous tittle-tattle from a summer crowd
That’s fed on lemonades and matinees.
Though she’s stuck among the “potatoes, dentists, people I hardly know,” she describes herself as “powerful, disobedient.” But there is also a strong undercurrent of pain, exhaustion, fear, boredom, and real disillusionment in many of these poems. For a poet of “the modern metropolis,” as she once admiringly referred to Rimbaud, Tonks seems distinctly uneasy there. In “Story of a Hotel Room,” for example, a casual tryst proves emotionally dangerous:
Londoner, Parisian, someone should have warned us
That without permanent intentions
You have absolutely no protection
In “Bedouin of the London Evening,” which lends the new collection its name, the poet concludes:
I have been young too long, and in a dressing-gown
My private modern life has gone to waste.
—From an essay by Ruth Graham for Poetry Magazine, examining the career of poet Rosemary Tonks, and Tonks’ subsequent disappearance from public life.
It was a famously cold winter. I’d come from a snowbound Hove, where I’d spent hours sitting and brooding, wrapped up but shivering on the frozen pebbled beach staring out at an icy sea, writing poetry about seagulls and loneliness (no longer extant, thank heavens, though that’s not to say that I wouldn’t write about seagulls and loneliness like a lightning strike if I once let my guard down). London was cold, too. But Charrington Street was warm. Doris was particularly proud that she had had central heating installed in her new house, which had been bought, I imagine, with the proceeds of The Golden Notebook, published the year before. In the first week or two, friends came and sat around the kitchen table for lunch and supper, for me to meet and for them to meet me, Doris said. We went to movies, first to see Brando in Mutiny on the Bounty with Joan, who had been a staunch friend and fellow Communist Party member, and in whose house Doris had lived, and been looked after, for several years when she got to England with her small son, Peter. Writers, poets and theatre people came to supper, Alan Sillitoe and his wife, the poet Ruth Fainlight, Arnold Wesker and his wife Dusty. Naomi Mitchison. Ted Hughes, Christopher Logue (whose recording of poetry and jazz, Red Bird, I’d bought with my pocket money at St Christopher’s), Lindsay Anderson, Fenella Fielding. A Portuguese couple, described to me as ‘a poet in exile and his glamorous wife’, would remain friends of Doris, about the only ones who did, until her death. R.D. Laing was a guest a couple of times. I watched amazed as his wife (the first, I think) actually closed her eyes and dropped into sleep every time he started to speak.
I was thrilled to meet people whose work I’d read or heard of. I’d read all of Sillitoe and taken part in play-readings of Wesker’s work at school. At Doris’s I read Laing’s The Divided Self and The Self and Others, and found a good deal in them that chimed with my experience of a mad nuclear-family life. I was aware of being on show, and was very cautious. I took the opportunity my novelty gave me to find out how to behave among these strangers. Doris made stews, boeuf Stroganoff, salads, trifles, and we drank wine, Algerian red and Portuguese rosé. I sat, watched and listened. On one occasion, Doris took me to lunch with the Sillitoes, around whose table were some visiting Russian literary types, and Robert Graves. I was even more silent than usual, having a marked taste for older, old men actually, and being quite overwhelmed by Graves’s grey curls and the beauty of his pronounced Roman nose, as well as his grave pronouncements about art and life, none of which I remember. I was mortified that he failed to address a single word to me, although I would have stuttered into sawdust if he had. The following day, Alan told Doris that Graves had asked who that attractive young Russian girl was, and what a pity it was that she spoke no English.