Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Guy Trebay's Quiddities of London

Here's a writer for me to remember: Guy Trebay. (Yes, I've read him before.) This past weekend, I happened to read an article of his about the "whatness" of London, "London's Odd and Empty Corners" (New York Times, March 8, 2013), and am so enthralled that I'm compelled to note it here in my blog! Trebay begins in medias res:
"You know, guv, that really gets on my goat," Billy Allardyce said from the front of the taxi, his amplified voice a warble of Abbey Road reverb.

We were barreling toward Portobello Road in a cold winter downpour, headed for an arcade I'd been tipped about by my friend, the antiquarian Alexander di Carcaci. Mr. Allardyce was griping about change. The peculiarities and quirks of his 1960s childhood, he said, had given way to the blight of center city sameness.

"When I was a boy you could still see all them little shops, streets of specialty shops," Mr. Allardyce told me. Back then, Columbia Market -- today a place of open-air flower stalls and hipster brunch spots -- was where East End families shopped for pet guinea pigs.

"Kittens, dogs, snakes, rabbits," Mr. Allardyce said. "They even had goats."

The image delights me -- a goat cropping grass in central London. It summons up both England's agrarian soul and also a capital city in which little-known spaces, odd corners and crooked byways have always had their place. It speaks to me of quiddity, that ineffable quality of what-ness. People have it -- places, too . . . .

[F]orgo the long lines and the touristic must-sees and practice instead some urban idling, the flânerie Balzac termed the "gastronomy of the eye." Walter Benjamin more famously characterized the flâneur as an essential urban figure, an amateur detective and investigator of urbanity. Predicting that rampant consumer capitalism would eventually spell doom for a flâneur's pleasures, Benjamin also neatly anticipated Billy Allardyce's gripe, and my own.
Not many writers could bring the quotidian goats of London's quiddity together with the erudite aesthete's flâneur eye and successfully bundle them all into a taxi for conversation with a driver who likely has all "The Knowledge" required of The City's best cabbies for rapidly getting passengers precisely where they want to be, say, Leighton House:
A visitor coming off the street and through a drab reception area (formerly the breakfast room) into Leighton House is thus plunged into an Orientalist delirium: Satsuma vases, scholar's rocks, a stuffed peacock perched on a railing, and the Arab Hall itself, a chamber whose blue tile panels, Genoa marble columns, gilded friezes and domed skylight were brought together, it would seem, to stun the viewer into aesthetic submission, a Victorian version of shock and awe.
That "aesthetic submission" is a clever play on the literal meaning of the word "Islam" -- less clever the Iraq War allusion, though nicely ironic, at least, since the Arab world is the astonishing, awe-inspiring one this time.

Read the entire article . . .

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