Thursday, 14 June 2012

Happy Bloomsday, or Ulysses in CalvinoLand

I have just been home. Or rather, I have recently spent a few days in Bloomsbury, where I passed an important chunk of my early adult life, a life's time ago. Now firstly, I feel it is important to point out that Bloomsbury, like Neverland and Hogwart's, does not, in fact, exist. It has no boundaries. No street or landmark shows where it begins or ends, therefore it does neither. Some Objects are definitely In Bloomsbury, and some definitely Outside, but it's an arbitrary rule, that to the foreigner can look like no rule at all, for Bloomsbury is a paradigm whose self-administered laws allow it to exist concurrently with an external reality which has, frankly, Moved On. And if Bloomsbury does not exist, still less does Fitzrovia, which doesn't even have a real name, but goes by a moniker which refers to a shadowy group of very-nearly-also-rans who were Known to Those In The Know, and who drank (and usually did little else) in a pub that was named for the illegitimate descendant of some King who got his nooky here in the days when the London Boroughs were leafy villages bristling with wholesome milkmaids (and ploughboys, if your tastes ran that way). Here Jeffrey Bernard Was Unwell, and I was too, once or twice at least. Fitzrovia is probably best understood as an imaginary annex to an Imaginary City, an extra Wing added on to house the Billiard Room, or a larger dining hall. Parts of Soho also fit this plan, as does the entirety of the Charing Cross Road. Of It, but not In It, yet somehow pertaining to the whole.
 Anyway... we stay in the Jenkins Hotel, which is somewhere Dylan Thomas should have stayed, but unfortunately never did. We arrive late, so we have to get the keys from next door, and set off to find our room. Up we go, up one creaking staircase, and another, and so up and up till we come to a set of stairs so steep and slippery that we ascend hanging on to the rope-swag bannister rail by our teeth (not really, but a rope would have been handy), and find ourselves in an attic bedroom where a housemaid in an Agatha Christie novel might have concealed pearls stolen from a wealthy, but unpleasant, guest, and plotted in her scant leisure moments her revenge against a cruel and stifling hierarchy. The room is entirely furnished in 1930's style - not as a deliberate, chic decor choice, but because the furniture was already there. And tired as we are, we go straight to sleep. In the morning the kind, possibly Eastern European, receptionist tells me that he is going to change our room - the night porter had noticed that my companion has some mobility problems, and there is a room available on the ground floor, so I move our things downstairs. The new room is decorated in a similar style to the first: none of the furnishings - a battered wardrobe with a walnut inlay, a dark wooden chest of drawers, a pair of bedside tables topped with drunken, blinking brass reading lamps which we are afraid to use - date from a period later than the 1940's, and some items, such as a large, heavy circular mirror aiming for an Arnolfini Wedding look, but with several balls from the molding missing and the gilt gone, look to be considerably older, as do the curious early nineteenth-century glass paintings hanging in the lobby opposite, where the hotel desk at which you have to leave your keys every morning seems flimsy and insubstantial in comparison to the solid Georgian drawing-room fireplace facing it. The total impression is that nothing has been added to the place since the War, and certainly nothing has ever been taken out. I must admit that I like the Jenkins Hotel very much. If we go back, we shall stay there again.
  After our room-change has been effected, we go out for coffee before commencing the business of the day. We sit down outside a caff that sells salt-beef and kebabs and huge, greasy fry-ups, and order two large, stewed cups of coffee. My partner mistakes the salt for the sugar - no matter. His cup is replaced instantly - no charge. And now, it strikes me, like a warm breath (though it is pretty cold even for English June, in truth), an air, a worn-in, slightly shabby, (but never replaced because nothing else would ever quite fit or be right for the place) kind of an air, neither pleasant, nor, because of its familiarity, precisely unpleasant, (the steam rising from the basement kitchen of a friendly local restaurant where you keep coming back, even though the food isn't really all that good) - I am back. And nothing has changed, as nothing ever does here. A rickshaw hurtles by, bell ringing cheerfully, between two black cabs. Nobody turns a hair. A middle-aged man in a bright yellow suit strides down the street, lapels flapping in the breeze, glowing in the london grey like the Sun King, incongruously imagined by Frank Auerbach, and a small, unobtrusive Vicar sidles like a bi-curious mouse into the Lesbian and Gay bookshop. A party of exchange students are lost, and always will be. Louise Bourgeois and Gertrude Stein share a tisane between the pot plants (probably they are Geraniums, but don't tell Alice!) in the window of the Vegetarian Wholefood Bistro, and Virginia Woolf and Amy Winehouse stroll arm-in-arm across Russell Square towards the Tube station. Sssssshhhh! Quiet now. Nobody has told them that they're dead.

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