This morning, enroute to work, TFL were carrying out another of their surveys for travellers. They do this about twice a year, wanting to know where you got on the piece of public transport you are currently on, whether you walked to it, took a spaceship, hailed a hackney coach etc, where you were headed, and what for. I am explaining this to those of you who don’t know London transport, and for those who are allergic to all forms of public transportation, like my brother. TFL says it’s to streamline bus routes and services, though I’d be astonished if they changed the bus routes simply because Doris from Finchley once wrote down that it took her three buses to get to Brent Cross and could they alter this please? TFL need to get if not inside our heads, then inside our routines. Who works where and from where do they travel? What is your demographic? Tick the boxes, put your postcode in and hand it in to the polite chap on the door of the bus who is handing out free plastic pens to travellers, and a little bit of cityworkers’ identity gets logged and allocated and filed and forgotten.
Everyone is very well-behaved and does what they are told. But it gets you thinking where we all travel from. Yes, we are on a bus, but we are on an awful lot of other things too. Rather than travelling from Route 460 onto Route 13 we were actually travelling on 300 feet of ground fish and plankton bones which ground down to form chalk. And what we now know as “London Clay” is actually the detritus of gravel, sand and a tropical sea that were the only features of the London rush hour a million years ago. Roman London was about twelve feet below modern London. There is a river that flows down South Molton Street (part of the old “Tyburn Brook”, one of the many tributaries that used to run towards the Thames, and a small river that edged the Grosvenor Estate) which was simply covered up and turned into a sewer. If it hadn’t been, it could have been another Little Venice, except one edged by shoe sales and temp offices.
There are all sorts of strangenesses buried here, and I don’t attempt to list them all in a blog, becuase that would mean I was mad, but I have been enjoying reading about a severely edited, and fictionalised version in Edward Rutherfurd’s “London”. I first read this book about 11 years ago. Rutherford hit on a formula of historical fiction that worked (charting the progress and development of cities through descendants of a cluster of families) and seems to be repeating it for every world city. “Dublin”, “The Forest”, “Russka” and “New York”. They are not good literature. But they are a right good read.
“What are you reading Edward Rutherfurd for?!” I remember my brother exclaiming, dropping his polenta on the floor whilst ruminating on the state school offerings in middle class West London. “Haha!” I was supposed to be learned and reading other writers and stuff. But I loved Edward Rutherfurd’s “London”. He takes pseudo-Dickensian names like Ducker (rude limerick anyone?) and Dogberry and watches them evolve throughout centuries of yer London history. Dogberry the medieval coin-cleaner, or peasant slave, evolves to become a saturnine Elizabethan schoolmaster (“Clean your ruff, Davis!”) or a Victorian pimp. Okay, not pimp, but certainly street Arab (“Cor Blimey gov’nor! Top ‘ole corpses to be faund dahn by Lahndahn Wall. Yer ‘umble servant sir – oh – it’s a jolly ‘oliday with Marrryy! Mary makes yer heart so light! Oh, sorry, wrong musical”.) That street Arab fulfils Victorian fears about the poor having lots and lots of children and taking over the middle classes by producing a man called Bill in 1920, who grows up to become an Air Raid warden in 1940. (“They’ll be bluuuueebirds over, the white cliffs….whad’ya say? Evacuation? Nah, you’re all right. I ‘ad one before I come out, I did.” GAAH!! BOMB!!”) And so on, and so on. It’s quite impossible, as London’s success has been its rapid intake of immigrants or foreigners in the last 2,000 years (even the Romans were Italian, you know. That’s why they were so short and useless and built straight roads to race their Italian sports cars down). However, Rutherford is keen to create a London where everyone is descended from a Saxon peasant. Or, for the rakish characters, a bit of Viking blood. If this was still the case, and the indigenous population of this island was truly indigenous we would still be living culturally as pre-Roman Britons:
1. Enforced country dancing created by English feudal lords. As there would have been no jazz, no rock and roll, no jiving, no Viennese waltzing, no Argentinian tangoing. Why? Because it’s foreign MUCK, that’s why. Get your morris bells on. This leads to….
2. Strictly Come Morris Dancing is BBC1’s top-rated show.
3. At restaurants all you could eat would be sheep, liver, onions, blackberries, strawberries and more sheep. Breakfast would be sheep on toast.
4. Our hobbies would be limited to beheading, boar-slapping, war-starting and mass burials – with a bit of animal husbandry thrown in.
5. No roads, because we wouldn’t let the Romans come in and be Emperors coz they were foreign. Just forests randomly spotted with man-eating wolves.
6. We would have to work on the land (BORING) ploughing fields with the arsebone of giraffes and eating mice for supper.
7. Television. Now this was invented by a Scot, so we might just sneak this fellow in. But what’s on it? Eastenders, where everyone is living in huts and using animal fat for Saxon candles? And 72 garden shows showing you the best way to roast a marrow for your thane (Saxon lord).
Of course, Edward Rutherfurd isn’t a nincompoop, and his books aren’t silly. He does allow vagrant European randoms to seep in. I was just amusing myself, Mr Rutherfurd. He is actually very readable and I strongly recommend “London” for an enjoyable, fictionalised, potted history of this ‘ere great city. But do not purchase on Kindle. On Kindle you do not get the family tree which goes through 2,000 years, and you won’t know who’s who without it. You don’t want to get your Roman batty boys mixed up with your Georgian candle lighters, because then where would history be then? It’s a minefield, my friends.
Meanwhile, for those who require an update on M E Braddon, and who commented on my entry about Lady Audley’s Secret ( https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/chick-lit-1860s-style/) , I am still working my way through the 61 titles of Mrs Braddons, 58 of which are now out of print. “Wyllard’s Weird” is a genius bit of railway murder mystery but it’s out of print. “Dead Love Has Chains” is genius – but – it’s out of print. I’m compiling summaries of these books because I haven’t got a life and will update you with them forthwith. For anyone who feels passionately about re-publishing obselete works from the 1860s featuring ladies going hysterical in Bayswater drawing rooms because their dipsomaniac husbands have set alight to their ancestral home in Wiltshire using nothing more than a packet of lucifers and a copy of Punch from April 1868, do hassle the Sensation Press at http://www.sensationpress.com/mainindex.htm.
Please return to The London Bluebird if you enjoyed this. This blog is updated every Thursday.