Friday, June 05, 2009

"A well-bred mustiness"

As I opened the week by poking a bit of fun at the English, it seems right to close it that way. I'll let Elaine Dundy do the honors, with this passage from The Old Man and Me (1964):
The English postal service is one of the glories of its nation. You cannot go into a drugstore for some popular brand of toothpaste without being told they're sorry it's on order and will only take ten days. You have to face the fact that certain telephone exchanges are ungettable from certain other ones without begging the operator to intercede for you (KNIghtsbridge and MAYfair weren't on speaking terms when I was there.) Laundry or cleaning might take anywhere from three weeks to three years. But mail is delivered regularly, sometimes four times a day. Londoners think nothing of posting their letters in the morning for their friends to read at tea-time.
Fairness requires me to point out that most of the problems Dundy cites could be attributed to the postwar austerity that was only beginning to be shed at the time of her novel. So maybe we should select a complaint that's still valid? Let's see . . . a-ha. This will do:
Maybe it was the London air. I'm sure it's unhealthy. At least it had an unhealthy effect on me. . . . And when I say London air I am not talking about the fog, which of course was the exaggeration, the stirring up, the pouring out, the laying it on thick. I'm talking about the ordinary everyday London air, lying low through September and October, pretending anonymity, only to rise in November, pungent and dangerous. Come to think of it, it was C. D. that pointed it out to me. He sniffed the air and said, "Now it's beginning to smell like London again," and when I asked him what he meant he said that for instance Paris smelled like apples and French cigarettes and Seville like rancid olive-oil and hair-oil and Barcelona like decaying bodies and bull sweat. London, he said, smelled of a well-bred mustiness of old newspapers boiled with vegetables. But I thought it had an evil smell. I know it did: The Sulphur Fumes of Hell.
The description is apt even today, if you imagine adding a healthy dash of diesel fuel to the simmering pot of newsprint and cabbage. Nevertheless, even though I haven't lived in London for more than a decade (and even then for less than a year), when I get off the plane and take a deep breath of that toxic brew, it smells like home. London is, after all, awfully hard not to love. Even Cyril Connolly, who in the depths of dissatisfaction could write in his diary,
One cannot really love London. It is disappointing in every way. A foggy, dead-alive city, like a dying ant-heap
--a mere month later would make an entry that consisted solely of this line:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
Oh, the perils of writing a post about London: by the time I hit the "Publish" button, all I want to do is head to the airport . . .


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Anonymous1:05 PM

    The choice of of Cyril Connelly for your quotes was intentional, right? If not, then you've just blown my mind!

  3. Sara,
    My choice of Connolly to quote there was nothing but a reflection of my belief that he should be quoted as frequently and as widely as possible.

    But your question sent me to Google--and then to the Guardian's obituary for Dundy, where I learned that the book was "derived from attentions paid to her by the critic Cyril Connolly."

    Wow. Apparently I was picking up on something in the ether . . . Does this mean I've actually blown your mind?

  4. Anonymous2:33 PM

    Yes, you have! I love it. If we imagine (not that we would ever mix fact/fiction is such a vulgar way) that CD McKee is Cyril Connolly (whose name I misspelt earlier—blame Tim Robinson) you weren't just picking up something in the ether—you were inhaling it directly.