Made in the USA? Letter From London
This other history, the history of day-to-day megapolitan life, often goes unwritten. But Taylor chases the kinds of minute and ephemeral details available only to social history conducted in the present tense, and the result is a book that anyone with an interest in London might read with gratitude. The book comprises interviews with about a hundred people—among them an estate agent, a social worker, a personal trainer, a chef, an “eyewitness to the London riots” and, perhaps most brilliantly, Emma Clarke, “voice of the London Underground”:
They couldn’t decide how to pronounce Marylebone, whether it was MAR-le-bone, Mary-le-bone, Mary-lee-bone, or, most bizarrely, Mary-lob-on. So I had to voice all alternatives. I think they chose Mary-le-bone…. I have a fondness for all the names, I really do. I suppose I especially like ‘Piccadilly Circus.’ I like the rhythm of it. My favorite is ‘Theydon Bois’ (thay-don bo-is).
Another interviewee, Tim Turner, who works for a bank, sets out his vision of ”Londin,” to distinguish the city where he lives from the place depicted in, say, the Evening Standard’s Londoner’s Diary:
I’m not living in a London of big pleasures and tourism and Russian billionaires and Saatchi Gallery and the London Eye, but in Londin…. It’s a bit shit in Londin, but there are little pleasures, like walking very quickly and listening to my headphones; like the taste of that ready-made pasta they sell at M&S, with chunks of feta the size of miniature golf balls; or like the big southbound platform at Angel station. There’s so much room on that one platform. I was there the other day and I thought to myself: Why did they make this platform so ridiculously big? It’s wonderful.
The purpose of Taylor’s book is to convey, using the form of a panoramic collage, the ordinary, pragmatic city, strewn with pigeons, marred by bad weather, and all but invisible in the majority of London books. His characters aren’t really interested in legislation, but they unavoidably register its outcomes. The accuracy that a book like this can achieve is of an impressionistic kind, and in testimonies such as that of Emily Davis, identified as a “cyclist,” casual observation goes straight to the heart of the matter:
My husband and I went for a bike ride round the Olympic site the other day. I find it impossible to believe that London will be capable of achieving all the things that the Olympic committee are pretending it’s going to be able to achieve. And I don’t mean the Games themselves, necessarily. I’m sure all stops will be pulled out and the Games will be fine and they’ll be efficient and they’ll work and there’ll be a lovely opening ceremony and there’ll be a lovely closing ceremony and nothing terrible will happen….
I think London will continue to muddle on and some things will work and plenty of things won’t work, and somehow that combination of the working and not working is what gives it a particular energy and a particular life…. This combination of not being able to get everything to work that we say will work seems somehow to give it an energy that makes it more appealing perhaps than a well-run, efficient city. I mean, if you’re always striving for success, you end up with something like America, and nobody wants to be like America, really.
Last year, Leo Robson wrote about symposia and scholarship of Henry James.