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November 28, 2013

Portraits: Paris, London, York and Montmartre - Part 2/3

Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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I love the portrait of the 1800 Strand, where I stayed in London this summer, given by British author E. V. Lucas, in his classic A Wanderer in London. He says, "The most Bohemian of London streets, if the Strand could cross to Paris it would instantly burgeon into a boulevard. Its prevailing type is of the stage: the blue chin of Thespis is very apparent there, and the ample waistcoat of the manager is prominent too."

“Except at night, on the way to the Gaiety, the fashionable youth avoid the Strand; and indeed the best-dressed men and women are not seen on its pavements, howsoever they may use its carriage way,” he added, “But with these exceptions, all London may be studied there; and other nations too, for the great hotels and Charing Cross station tend to cosmopolitanise it. Probably at no hour of the day or night are more than half the Strand's population true Londoners.”

Lucas advises us visitors, “If the Strand is too much for one, as it may easily be, the escape is very simple. You may be on the banks of the Thames in two minutes from any part of it, or on the beautiful Adelphi Terrace, or among the flowers and greenery of Covent Garden, or amid the peace of the Savoy chapel or the quietude of Essex Street. Standing on the south end of Waterloo Bridge on a sunny afternoon you get one of the best views of London that is to be had and learn something of the possibilities of the city's white stone.”

“The Adelphi, which dates from 1768, consists of the Terrace, standing high overlooking the river, and its neighbouring streets, John Street, Robert Street, James Street, William Street and Adam Street, together with the arches beneath. It was the work of the Scotch architects Robert, John, James and William Adam, who in its generic title and in these four streets celebrate for ever their relationship and their names. The Terrace must be seen from the Embankment or the river if its proportions are to be rightly esteemed; and one must go within one of the houses to appreciate the beauty of the Adam ceilings and fireplaces, which are the perfect setting for the furniture of Heppel- white and Sheraton. English taste in decoration and design has certainly never since reached the height of delicacy and restraint it then knew.

“More ancient is the district between the Adelphi and the Charring Cross District Railway station. Here we go back a hundred years before the Adelphi was built, to associations with the great name of Buckingham Street, Duke Street, and Villiers Street being its chief quarters.”

Lucas then talks about my favorite spot just a short walk from the Stand; Covent Garden.

He says, “Covent Garden being for the most part a wholesale market, it has none of the interest of the Paris Halles, where the old women preside over stalls of fruit and vegetables arranged with exquisite neatness, and make up pennyworths and two pennyworths with so thoughtful an eye to the prservation of economy. We have nothing like that in London. In London if you want two pennyworth of mixed salad you must buy six pennyworth and throw away the balance, economy being one of the virtues of which we are ashamed; nor do we encourage open air stalls except for the poor.

“Hence where it is retail Covent Garden deals only in cut flowers and rare fruit, although I must not forget the attractive little aviary on the roof at the east end of the central building, where the prettiest of the little cage birds of all countries twitter their appeal to you to take them home and love them.

“There is something in the constitution of the London porter, whether he unloads ships or wagons, carries on his head vegetables, fish, or the products of farthest Ind, which arrests progress, keeps him apart and out of the movement. You notice this at the Docks, which are of course remote from the centre, but you notice it also at Covent Garden, within sound of the very modern Strand.

“Covent Garden remains independent and aloof. New buildings may arise, petrol instead of horses may drag in the wagons from the country, but the work of unloading and distributing vegetables and flowers remains the same, and the porters have an immemorial air and attitude unresponsive to the times; while the old women who sit in rows in the summer shelling peas have sat thus since peas first had pods.

“Not only does the Covent Garden porter lead his own life insensitive to change, but his looks are ancient too: his face belongs to the past. It is not the ordinary quick London face: it has its scornful expression, of course, because London stamps a weary contempt on all her outdoor sons; but it is heavier, for example, than the Drury Lane face, close by. Perhaps the soil is responsible for this: perhaps Covent Garden depending wholly on the soil, and these men on Covent Garden, they have gained something of the rural stolidity and patience.”

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