When I was scheduling appointments for this trip, I deliberately left today open, because previous experience told me the preceding week would give me ideas for other things I needed to do — things not already on the schedule. Unfortunately, the major item on that list just isn’t feasible: I can’t get to York, make productive use of the Railway Museum archives, and get back in time for my flight tomorrow morning. But I’ve got plenty of smaller odds and ends with which to fill my day, and those will just have to be enough.
It feels a bit like I’m running mental errands, actually, checking things off a list. Southwark, London Bridge, the Monument, the Tower, the Bank of England. Taking care of a leftover bit of research at the Museum of London, I divert to photograph a bit of old city wall nearby (one I may or may not have caught in the past), and discover there’s more to it than I realized; it goes back to a small herb garden maintained by the Barbers’ Company, and in walking around that I find a curved fragment of old bastion overlooking a tiny pond-reservoir thing with lily pads and ducks. That’s one of the aspects of the city that keeps charming me, the way you can go from a busy thoroughfare crowded with cabs and double-decker buses, to quiet lanes ten feet wide, to hidden patches of green serenity, with a medieval wall silhouetted against a modern skyscraper, all in the space of one minute’s walk. You can’t plan something like that, not really; it’s the sort of juxtaposition that only happens in a city that wasn’t planned, that just sort of happened by accident over a period of hundreds of years. Places like this really deserve the metaphor of a palimpsest, the different layers incompletely scraped away and rewritten by later hands. I know Wren and others wanted to make London a tabula rasa after the Great Fire, turning disaster into opportunity, wiping clean all the chaos and stupid inefficiencies that tangle up the heart of London, and from a practical standpoint things might have been better if they had. But I’m grateful they didn’t, that the palimpsest resisted and escaped their reforming hands. Had they succeeded, I would have never known the City as it is today, and so I wouldn’t know to resent them for erasing it. But they failed, and I do know, and I love the fact that the layers remain.
I lapsing into these kinds of thoughts for several reasons. One is that the things I’m doing with my day don’t make for interesting narrative I can type up and use to entertain you all. I can do a bit; I can, for example, tell you about how I’m going back for anothe ride around the Circle Line. Partly because I figured out I can do it from Paddington — I just won’t arrive at the same platform I left from — but mostly because of what I didn’t admit in my post of a few days ago, which is that the cold I came down with meant I was half-comatose on that first circuit, barely paying attention to anything around me. Besides, having in the interim looked at photos and engravings and schematics of the Victorian construction, I’m now aware that more has survived than I thought: the ceilings may have been tiled flat, the benches replaced, but the old bones are still there in many places. The open cuttings, brick-walled and notched with alccoves — those are all Victorian. The straight open staircases, too, leading up to iron footbridges across the track; West Brompton, where I went for the police archives yesterday, was like that. (It had been built by 1884, though it isn’t part of the Circle.) And with the possible exception of the distant fringes, I suspect it’s always true that one goes downstairs to change from the District or Circle to another line, because they were built before the advent of tunneling techniques reliable enough to bore through the deep clay.) But aside from that, all the mental errands — they don’t narrate well.
The other reason for philosophical musing, of course, is that this is at least a temporary end. I don’t know if I’ll be writing any more Onyx Court books — that depends on a lot of factors, only a few of them in my control — and even if I do, I don’t think it will happen immediately. I need a break, and moreover, what comes next is the Blitz: a period recent enough, and important enough to the British national consciousness, that I would want to take more than the usual amount of care in getting it right. Which means more prep time, even after the downtime I’d like to have, which means very low odds that I’ll be coming back in May or June of 2011. After four consecutive years of London research trips, I’m reaching the end. It may be temporary, or it may not — but you see why it’s making me just a little bit nostalgic.
(Honestly, I’m not sure I want to come back before 2013. Preparation for the Olympics is really making a mess of certain areas, and then the games themselves will be chaos. Better to return when the coast is clear.)
(Though if I don’t come back before then, it will not be for lack of trying on fjm‘s part. She certainly offered up enough blandishments.)
I had more I wanted to say here, but didn’t get a chance to write it down, and now it’s gone. As of typing this bit, I’m back home, after two excessively long flights. So I’ll close by saying I did two things this trip that I’d never quite achieved before: I killed both a pen and a notebook. Every Onyx Court book gets two little notebooks (Paperchase minis), one for the London trip, one for book-research; I’ve always used up the majority of the former, sometimes almost all of it, but this is the first time I’ve actually blown through the whole thing. And I ran out of ink in my pen, too. Which seems like an appropriate note to end on, don’t you think?