Monday, February 29, 2016

London, fog, cities, winter's melancholy

I spent some time Sunday flipping through Cyril Connolly's journals, which offered up some nicely Twitter-length stray thoughts:
Idleness only a coarse name for my infinite capacity for living in the present.

Never has there existed so large a mass of floating appreciation willing to be mis-directed as to-day.

Told Noel I exist only to celebrate my sense of guilt.

What kind of cure is writing? Give me the disease any day.

Abroad at least I am interesting to myself, in London I wasn't even that.

To love life is to have the curiosity to search for the occasions when life is lovable—or rather the enterprise to create them. In London they are damn few.
It's those last two that bring me here tonight. Connolly had a grumpily schizophrenic relationship to London. To take but the most extreme example, here is a diary entry from 1928:
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, however, the city's Cupid had struck again:
A wild month, intoxication of London as before.
{For more on this front, you can check out this old post.}

The reference to fog led me to pull down from my shelves a recent book that I'd only flipped through: Christine L. Corton's London Fog: The Biography. Sadly, Connolly doesn't make the index, but Corton does have some interesting observations about how writers of his period saw the fog:
In the Victorian era London fog had been linked to crime, immorality, transgression, and despair, but the association of fog with death in the minds of so many writers in the interwar years is notable.
You can see how both conceptions worked for their eras--the Victorians worried about the upheavals of urbanization and the constantly denied proximity of the desperate poor, while the interwar writers, even those young enough to have escaped service in World War I, were shadowed by its vast losses. One veteran, Corton writes, said that "walking through no-man's land was like walking through a fog." She quotes Henry Green, from Party-Going:
Humming, he likened what he saw to being dead and thought of himself as a ghost driving through streets of the living, this darkness or that veil between him and what he saw a difference between being alive and death.
Even now, however, long after the fog has been conquered (though the air of the Thames Valley remains noticeably lacking in freshness), London in the wrong season--in the drizzly heart of winter--can be a gloomy, dispiriting place. But is the problem peculiar to London, or is it a quality of cities in general, when we approach them at the wrong season of the calendar or the heart? Here's Connolly again, from his journal for 1928:
(1) Always to express your depression in appropriate surroundings--e. g. to avoid London whose gloom is squalid, and which, consequently, squalidifies and degrades the form of depression by introducing an element of despair and futility not proper to the natural melancholy of a historic sense linked by self-dramatisation with a love of beauty. In general, if the surroundings are depressing, feel depressed--the chief cure for depression, drink, is unreliable, it removes the symptoms without curing, it staunches a mood rather than heals it, a piece of premature midwifery instead of letting nature take its way--often too, it intensifies the gloom.

(2) The other cure, people, is equally unreliable. People with a greater vitality than one's own will jar, unless they are so well known that one is not ashamed to be dumb among them--or else so exhilarating to one's snobbery that one forgets everything else in the desire to shine (see drunkenness). People especially with sad voices, sex repressions, or little ambition are usually more depressing than soothing to a melancholy man--contrive instead to make surroundings suit your mood, when the melancholy vanishes as gently as a boil under a hot poultice.
Here at the Leap Day whimper-end of winter, what are cities but people and squalor? A month from now, when grass is peeking green and trees are budding, the city--London, Chicago, New York, wherever--will seem a wonderful place, Dr. Johnson's own patented cure for melancholy. But today, even the even-keeled among us could be forgiven for feeling a bit of the undertow Connolly describes so well.

1 comment:

  1. a bit of undertow, yes; maybe even subjected to a sense of drowning, especially in this politically torn world... oh, for for a hint of johnsonian perception!