Author: Steven Johnson Title: The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World Narrator: Alan Sklar Previously Read by the Same Author:
This book explores the ideas of urbanism, epidemiology, and social networks through the lens of the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in the Soho district of London. Dr. John Snow, with the help of Reverend Henry Whitehead, created a map of where people infected with cholera lived and drew their water to trace the infection to a water pump on Broad Street. That Snow and Whitehead knew the neighborhood and its people well proved advantageous in creating the connections needed to document the spread of disease. Snow also had to fight an uphill battle against the prevailing scientific belief that diseases like cholera were spread through the air, known as the miasma theory.
Johnson details how the evolutionary response to putrefaction and vile odors made such beliefs plausible, but practices such as “cleaning up” the city by deliberately washing waste into the water inadvertently caused infections to increase. Johnson also depicts the urban environment as a unique battleground for humans and microorganisms. All in all this is a fascinating account of an historic account, with broader implications for how we live today and into the future.
It seems that places for children to play have always been with us, but someone had to invent the playground and it turns out that Boston played a role in that, starting with piles of sand called sand gardens.
All of these stories are good, but I’m particularly interested in the nostalgic look back at the WPIX Yule Log, a television program that featured a burning log for three hours, which was a HUGE deal when I grew up in the New York City area.s
City Stories is a semi-regular feature where I write short expository pieces and vignettes inspired by cities I’ve lived in and visited in various places of the world. In previous stories we visited Brooklyn and Derry. Today we walk through Virginia Woolf’s London.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. Clarissa Dalloway’s familiarity with her route to the flower shop meant that she could perambulate Westminster while remembering her youth in the countryside, and pondering her choice of husband. For a pair of Americans who majored in English literature, however, we need a plan. To plot our route, I defer to Susan who read all of Virginia Woolf’s novels and has an additional graduate degree in English. She spends our flight from Logan to Heathrow highlighting passages from Mrs. Dalloway and charting a course on a map of London.
On our first full day in London in January 2004, we attempt to recreate the route that Clarissa followed eighty years and six months earlier. On our way to the residential area of Westminster where the Dalloways lived we pass the Houses of Parliament and a statue of Oliver Cromwell. Filled with the indignant rage of my Irish ancestry, I shake my fist at Cromwell, only to notice the closed circuit camera pointed right at me. I was now on the the United Kingdom’s list of dangerous people for threatening a statue of one of their leaders. But as we continue along we saw a large group protesting the war in Iraq holding pointed signs accusing Parliament of being “BABY KILLERS,” so maybe I’m low on that list.
We find the home suspected to be Woolf’s inspiration for the Dalloway’s house in a quiet residential area near the home once occupied by T.E. Lawrence. From there we set off on our walk, not to find flowers, but the delights of London. As the leaden circles of Big Ben’s chime dissolve in the air, we prepared to cross Victoria Street. Susan informs me that at this point Clarissa thought “Such fools we are!” while crossing the street and so we should as well. But as we start to cross a motor scooter zips by and nearly runs Susan over. That would be a foolish way to go.
Safely across Victoria Street we divert from Mrs. Dalloway’s route and into Westminster Abbey. Over time this church has accrued so much statuary and memorial plaques as to become something of an unofficial English Hall of Fame and Museum. The area around Geoffrey Chaucer’s grave is known as Poets’ Corner where there are burials and monumental plaques for over 100 English writers. An egregious absence from Poets’ Corner is Virginia Woolf.
After examining every nook and cranny of the Abbey, we emerge outdoors and enter into St. James Park. There is no airplane skywriting over the park but it is a quiet respite with “the slow-swimming happy ducks; the pouched birds waddling” in the Lake. Additional birds cavorting around the lake include pigeons, geese, and most exotic to Americans, coots. Unlike other water birds, coots do not have webbed feet but instead have long toes with lobes of skin. A bird that’s completely out of place in London is the pelican, but the lake is also home to a flock of pelicans descended from those donated by a 17th-century Russian ambassador. One pelican has its back to the government offices, just like Hugh Whitbread whom Clarissa meets in the park. So we decide this pelican’s name is Hugh and carry on.
We march up Whitehall past the Cenotaph and Horse Guards. No backfiring cars startle us, but we once again diverge from Clarissa Dalloway’s route and make our way to Trafalgar Square. We visit the cheery crypt of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields where we enjoy a delicious late lunch. Above, in the nave of St. Martins-in-the-Fields, we listen to a soprano and counter-tenor rehearse for that night’s performance.
In Trafalgar Square, we pick up on the route of Peter Walsh, Clarissa’s old friend and potential suitor. Here Peter pondered “strangeness of standing alone, alive, unknown, at half-past eleven.” It is much later in the day for us and as we were also unknown we join the crowds of tourists clambering up the Nelson monument to visit the cuddly lions. We help a fellow American up behind us, but then she promptly falls on her face. Luckily there are no injuries. Nearby a pair of young women sit looking at the South Africa house because they say it’s helping with their homesickness. The South Africans are traveling across Europe, visiting 11 cities in 12 days with a focus on dancing at the top nightclubs in every city. No wonder they look exhausted.
We notice a bird of prey with a tether on its leg circling overhead and an the absence of Trafalgar Square’s famed pigeons and wonder if the two our connected. We see two men wearing vests that read Heritage Guardians and approach them with our questions.
“Excuse me, what kind of bird is that?”
“It’s an ‘arris ‘awk.”
“Does it keep the pigeon population down?”
“The ‘awk keeps the pigeon population moving. It’s the boys with the shovels on Sunday morning that keep the pigeon population down.” He makes his meaning clear by using his hands to make the international gesture for braining a pigeon with a shovel.
Susan remembers that Peter Walsh looked up to a statue of Gordon, an historical figure he’d worshipped, but we can’t find the statue anywhere. We return to the Heritage Guards with another question.
“Do you know where the Statue of Gordon is?”
“Gordon of Khartoum?” replies one with a mix of surprise and confusion.
“No, not a cartoon!” says Susan with greater confusion. Clearing up the difference between cartoon and Khartoum, they have further questions.
“Does he ride a horse?” asks one.
“Does he wear a fez?” asks the other.
We don’t know the answers to any of these questions. One of the guards thinks that the statue was moved from Trafalgar Square just after the Second World War, and directs us to the Embankment by the Thames.
“There’s a statue there, might as well be ‘im!”
Susan has an Ahab-like obsession to stand under the Gordon statue like Peter Walsh and leads us down Northumberland Avenue to a park along the Embankment. There are in fact two statues in this park, but the problem is that they’re behind a fence and the gates are locked. After trying to find a way into the park or verify the statues’ identity from afar, we realize that the sun is setting and our stroll should come to an end.*
We determine the nearest Tube station for a line that will take us to meet up with our host Sarah is across the Thames at Waterloo Station. We bounce across the Hungerford Footbridge to the tune of “Take Five.” At the far end of the bridge a blonde woman busks on her saxophone.
For there she was.
* NOTE: With the help of Google Streetview, I’ve been able to locate the Charles George Gordon Statue in a park on the Victoria Embankment just one block up the Thames from where we were looking. Not only that, but the park has no enclosure so we totally could’ve stood under the Gordon statue. Other Woolfheads, take note!
Author: Rosemary Ashton Title: One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 Narrator: Corrie James Publication Info: Tantor Audio (2017) Summary/Review:
This historical work recounts the summer of 1858 in Great Britain, specifically London, during a time defined by unprecedented hot temperatures that exacerbated the foul stench of the polluted River Thames. The Great Stink, as it became known, motivated political action in Houses of Parliament and at the municipal level to clean up the river. Ashton’s work also focuses on the outcomes of other legislation that year such as the legalization of divorce, new regulations for credentialing medical practitioners, and changes in the treatment of the mentally ill.
The core of this book though focuses on the lives of three major figures of the era with alliterative names: Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli. In 1858, Darwin became aware that another scientist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had also devised a theory of natural selection, prompting Darwin to stop dragging his feet and begin to write and publish On the Origin of Species. Dickens, meanwhile, is in the midst of nasty split with his wife due to an affair, while also falling out with fellow writer Thackery. Disraeli is in the best position to address the Great Stink and uses his power to push through the Thames Purification Act, as well as working on other legislation such as no longer requiring Jewish MPs to swear by a Christian God.
The book is a snapshot of a single period, but it feels like a jumble that lacks a coherent theme. And the stories of the three main protagonist by necessity venture far into their lives well before and after 1858. A lot of the text reads as being gossipy, yet delivered very dryly.
Not secrets of the London Underground (although there are some) but of 2000+ years of history hidden beneath the surface of England’s capital. There’s a lot of nifty bits of subterranean trivia in this admittedly corny and sensationalist documentary, including:
ruins of the Roman amphitheater
Black Death plague pits
the labyrinthine Chislehurst Caves where miners extracted chalk for rebuilding London after the Great Fire
the innovative Victorian-era engineering of the Thames Tunnel
London Underground stations used both as air raid stations and to hide treasures from the British Museum during World War II
Churchill’s War Cabinet rooms
the lost Fleet River
the construction of an expansion of the British Museum into a new space four stories undergroun
Author: Zadie Smith Title: Swing Time Narrator: Pippa Bennett-Warner Publication Info: New York : Penguin Press, 2016 Previously read by the same author: White Teeth Summary/Review:
An unnamed narrator, whose mother is of Jamaican descent and father is white English working class, tells her life story focusing on her relationships with three women. First, there’s her mother who is a social activist and later an elected official with whom she feels alienated. Second, there’s Tracey, the only other nonwhite girl in her dance class who becomes her childhood friend (well, frenemy really) and is a much more talented dance. Finally, there’s Aimee, an Australian pop superstar (I guess like Kylie Minogue, although Aimee seems more like Madonna) who hires the narrator as a personal assistant. The narrative moves back and forth in different periods of the narrator’s life filling in details of these relationships. Smith takes a risk in making the narrator have no name but having characteristics that are autobiographical, and then makes the narrator so driftless and somewhat unlikable. One her traits is that she rarely is in control of her own life and lets these other women control her narrative, yet when she does take action is usually something petty.
A major plot point in the book is that Aimee builds a girls school in a West African village that the narrator plays a big role in returning to visit the village in what amounts to a parody of the sins of celebrity philanthropy. Similarly, the narrator’s mother is a parody of the arrogant left-wing activist who only barely emerges as a flesh and blood character. Tracey is the most fully developed of the three characters as the narrator keeps trying to put her into boxes based on her low-income background, sexuality, and “wildness” but Tracey keeps defying all of that. I find that I enjoy Smith’s writing style in this book but less interested in what Smith has to write about. The meandering quality of the narrative fits the aimlessness of the narrator but doesn’t make it enjoyable to read.
Recommended books: Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman Rating: **1/2
Author: Bruce Holsinger Title: A Burnable Book Narrator: Simon Vance Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014) Summary/Review:
This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II. The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue. The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands. Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details. Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving. Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.
The lo-fi punk band from London DIRTYGIRL offers “Transition,” a track with a tight power pop sound and vocals reminiscent of early Liz Phair. It’s off their Junk Food EP released in October, and made known to my by The Sounds in My Head podcast.
Author: Tom Holt Title: Earth, Air, Fire, and Custard Publication Info: London : Orbit, 2006.
This is the third in a series of J.W. Wells stories where the hapless Paul Carpenter finds himself forced to work in a company that’s really a front for the magic business of a bunch of goblins. In this adventure he has to deal with the lack of love in his life, pointless errands for his boss, dying several times, a parallel universe made of custard, bovine divinity, and setting reality straight several times over. The plot and twists are overly complicated but that’s part of the fun. The humor in this book is sharp and while the book may be overly long, I enjoyed catching up with Paul and company.
This week’s song is “Moaning Lisa Smile” by the London band Wolf Alice from their debut album My Love Is Cool. The sound is reminiscent of early 90s indie pop, but the video is straight out of the 80s. Neither of which is a bad thing.