Archive | Coming to London IX by Christopher Isherwood

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The following piece was first published in The London Magazine August 1956 Volume 3 No. 8 as “Coming to London — IX”, part of an at-the-time regular series about London life.                   

    Christopher Isherwood


Coming to London

            I don’t remember exactly how or when I first came to London; it was probably while I was still a baby, on a visit to my grand-mother. She had a flat at the lower end of Buckingham Street in the Adelphi, overlooking the old water-gate, and for many years this seemed to me to be the very hub of the city. On entering, you breathed in the fine dust of potpourri and the musk of my grand-mother’s furs: the odour was like an incense offered before the divinity of Sarah Bernhard, whom she adored and constantly spoke of, and it came to evoke for me the whole magic of the theatre, past and present. At the same time, the watercolours and etchings on her sitting-room walls—of Venice, Granada, Avignon and the Panama Canal—quickened my earliest longings to travel and made me see London as a gateway to the world. Reclining in a deck-chair on the roof of this flat, during the first Great War, my grandmother liked to watch the daylight raids through her lorgnette. No doubt she described the Enemy as ‘odious creatures’; it was her favourite phrase of condemnation—and she was later to apply it, in the singular, to George Moore, as she tore from a copy of The Brook Kerith the pages she considered blasphemous. She kept the rest of the book, however, because she greatly admired his descriptions of the Holy Land. She was the grandest grande dame I have ever known.

            As a young man, I lived in London myself; and left it and came back to it often. But, of all these returns, I think that only one will remain with me vividly for the rest of my life. It is my return from the United States at the beginning of 1947. I had been away from England for eight years, almost to the day.

            On January 21, around noon, our plane took off from New York. It was nearly dark when we reached Newfoundland and circled over the snow-woods and the frozen lakes to Gander, a tiny sprinkle of lights in the wilderness. Transatlantic air travel was somewhat more of an adventure in those days, and less elegantly conducted. The big bare white waiting-hall, with its table of simple refreshments, seemed very much a frontier-post; here was the last cup of coffee and the last bun in the Western Hemisphere.

            I didn’t sleep at all, that night. Not because I was unduly nervous; it was rather a kind of awe that kept me awake. If you are old enough, as I am, to remember Blériot—not to mention Lindbergh—it seems incredible to find yourself actually flying the Atlantic. I sat at my little window with its doll’s house curtains, vibrating with the changing rhythms of the aircraft and peering out for glimpses of the stars. Fragments of ice, dislodged from the wings, kept rattling against the pane. The cabin was dark, except for a few pin-rays of light from overhead reading lamps. Although all these seats around me were occupied, I felt curiously alone—for the journey I was making was back through time rather than forward through space, and it concerned no one on board except myself.

            And then—in palest saffron, in pink, in scarlet, in stabbing gold—the sunrise. It gleamed dully on our wet metal and on the cloudfield below us, which was blue-grey like dirty snow. We were flying over an arctic aerial landscape; weirdly solid, with terraces, erosions, valleys and great rounded rugged hills. The roar of our engines, which had been so loud through the night, now sank, or seemed to sink, to a soft hushing sigh. We were gradually coming lower. The plane skimmed the cloud-drifts like a motor-boat, and you had a sudden terrific sense of speed and impact, as though it would surely be dashed to pieces. We raced over them, through them, with the thick vapour whirling back in shreds from our propellors, massing, towering above us, bursting upon us in furious silent breakers. Then, through a wide rift, we saw Ireland—a country of bogs and stony fields, green and mournful in the showery morning, crossed by the winding estuary of the Shannon.

            A few miles up the Shannon is Limerick, where I had lived for three years, as a little boy, because my father was stationed there. In those days, it now seems to me, I accepted our unwelcomeness as a matter of course; it didn’t seem particularly shocking to me that children of my own age should spit and shout ‘dirty Protestant!’ as I walked down the street, or that my father’s regiment should occasionally be sniped at from rooftops on its march to church.

            And now the green and orange flag of independence fluttered over the airport hangars, and an announcement in Gaelic was coming through the loudspeakers as we entered the dining-room. But if the political situation had changed, the local atmosphere had not. I encountered, with happy recognition, the faded grandeur of velvet curtains and the breakfast of under-cooked, disembowelled sausage and strong but tepid tea. In a brogue as rich as ‘cello, my waiter described the terrible accident of a few weeks back—pointing, as he did so, to the fuselage of the wrecked plane which could still be seen sticking out of a bog beside the airfield. ‘The minute I set eyes on them coming down—Mother of God, I said to myself, they’re all lost entirely!’ His charming, sympathetic eyes were moist and sparkling with enjoyment of his story.

            And now, for the first time in my life, I began to feel American—or, at any rate, more American than European. Standing at the bar with a fellow passenger, a businessman from New Jersey, I watched the other travellers and suddenly found myself seeing them through his eyes. There was a group of tweedy foxhunting ladies who didn’t look as if they were going anywhere in particular; they might well have stopped in here for a drink after a meet. There was a party of Italian emigrants who had been waiting twenty-four hours to take off for the States; when their plane was announced, they embraced each other and cheered. And there was Sir Somebody Someone, who appeared to be running the British Empire single-handed. He had crossed the Atlantic with us, and was now in an audible state of impatience because we were delayed by the weather and London’s failure to ‘open’. ‘They’re waiting for me in Whitehall,’ he kept repeating. ‘All I can say is, I intend to be in India on Monday.’ I was afraid he might have sufficient authority to order our departure, regardless of the risk. But it seemed that he hadn’t.

            When we finally started, it must have been near two o’clock in the afternoon. We climbed steeply into the clouds and saw no more land until the coast of the Bristol Channel. This was my first opportunity to compare bird’s eye views of England and the States. What a contrast between the vast rectangular sections of the Middle West and the jigsaw pattern of this countryside! Even from the air, one gets a sense of the complexity of the past—of the Domesday Book. And of smallness. How small and vulnerable it all looks—wide open to the bitter east wind of History! The churches and the little towns, where three or four straggling roads converge as if expressly to lead a bomber to its target. The all-too-evident factories and landing strips. An eighteenth century country house with a portico, standing out tiny but sharply distinct against a wood in which clearings have been cut to form the initials G.V.R. We flew quite low, beneath the overcast; and it was cosy, like a room in the winter light of teatime. London appeared, a long smudge of brown haze, far ahead. The plane landed at Bovington Airport.

            Here was the scenery of the war—but already it was falling into disuse. Weeds were growing from cracks in the concrete runways; the Army signposts and the camouflage on the hangars were weather-beaten and faded. Some Germans were strolling around with spades on their shoulders—no longer with the air of prisoners but of accepted inhabitants. And here were the representatives of officialdom; and elderly gentleman and a young lady doctor of birdlike cheerfulness, waiting to examine us and our belongings in a draughty hut with an iron stove. The lady doctor was sorry I had no certificate of vaccination, but remarked consolingly: ‘Oh well, never mind—you’ve got a jolly good sunburn!’ I told her I’d been swimming in the Pacific, three days before. I could scarcely believe it myself.

            Throughout the years I had spent in Hollywood, I had never tired of protesting against the American film presentation of English life. What caricature! What gross exaggeration! But now—increasingly during the weeks that followed—I began to reverse my judgement. Is it possible to exaggerate the Englishness of England? Even the bus which took us from the airport into London seemed grotesquely ‘in character’; one almost suspected that it had been expressly designed to amaze foreign visitors. By nature a single-decker, it had had a kind of greenhouse grafted insecurely on to its back. Riding in this was much more alarming than flying. We whizzed down narrow lanes with barely room enough to pass a pram, scraping with our sides the notorious English hedgerows; then slowed with a jerk to circle a roundabout—an Alice-in-Wonderland death trap guaranteed to wreck any driver doing more than five miles an hour. And then we would pass through and English village complete with a village church in a country churchyard; so absurdly authentic that it might have been lifted bodily off a movie-lot at M-G-M… And as for the accents that now began to hear around me—I could scarcely trust my ears. Surely they were playing it very broad? Half of the population appeared to be talking like Richard Haydn as a Cockney bank clerk, the other half like Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.

            I saw little of London that night, for I went straight to John Lehmann’s house; and there a welcome awaited me that I shall never forget. Looking around me at the faces of my old friends, I discovered a happy paradox—namely that, while England seemed fascinatingly strange, my friends and our friendship seemed to be essentially what they had always been, despite our long separation. That was what was to make my visit so wonderful and memorable.

            During my re-exploration of London, I got two strong impressions; of shabbiness and of goodwill. The Londoners themselves were shabby—many of them stared longingly at my new overcoat—and their faces were still wartime faces, lined and tired. But they didn’t seem depressed or sullen. This may sound like a stupidly sweeping statement by a casual visitor; but I have seen a thoroughly depressed nation—the German in 1932. The English were not in the least like that. For instance, the girls at the ration board, which surely must have been the most exasperating of jobs, were quite gratuitously pleasant. ‘It seems so silly,’ one of them remarked to me, ‘to have to call Americans aliens.’ And this wasn’t just a chance encounter with a solitary xenophile, for I heard another girl being extremely sympathetic to a native lady with an obviously unreasonable grievance. On another occasion, when I was on a train, a young couple sat next to me who were about to emigrate to Australia; their baggage, already labelled for the voyage, proclaimed this fact. The other passengers in my compartment congratulated the couple on their decision and questioned them eagerly about their plans—all this without the slightest hint of bitterness or criticism. Of course, this goodwill was somewhat of the grin-and-bear-it variety which is produced by national emergencies; but it had certainly made London a much friendlier place for a stranger to visit. The only negative aspect of it was, perhaps, that the English had become a little too docile for their attitude toward official regulations. ‘We’re a nation of queue-formers,’ someone said. I experienced the truth of this for myself, one afternoon, when I went to a cinema, found that the film I wanted to see had five minutes left to run, and decided to wait outside till it was over. When next I turned my head, I saw that a line of half a dozen people had grown behind me.

            London’s shabbiness was another matter; it didn’t seem to me to have a cheerful side. The actual bomb damage gave you a series of sudden shocks—as when, one evening, I spend some time ringing the doorbell of a house, until I happened to look up through the fanlight and saw that the place was an empty shell, smashed wide open to the stars. Yet the shabbiness was more powerfully and continuously depressing. Plaster was peeling from even the most fashionable squares and crescents; hardly a building was freshly painted. In the Reform Club, the wallpaper was hanging down in tatters. The walls of the National Gallery showed big and unfaded rectangles, where pictures had been removed and not yet rehung. Many once stylish restaurants were now reduced to drabness and even squalor. The shortage of materials made all but the most urgent repairs illegal. I heard some weird tales of builders who were smuggled into private homes in their Sunday suits as ‘guests’, and who didn’t emerge until their ‘visit’—with much record playing to drown the sound of hammering—was over. London’s shabbiness was so sad, I thought, because it was unwilling—quite unlike the cheerful down-at-heel air of some minor Latin American capital. London remembered the past and was ashamed of its present appearance. Several Londoners I talked to at that time believed it would never recover. ‘This is a dying city,’ one of them told me.

            Few of my English readers will need to be reminded that this was the winter of the coal shortage and the great blizzards. The snow started about a week after my arrival; and it soon assumed the aspect of an invading enemy. Soldiers turned out to fight it with flame-throwers. The newspapers spoke of it in quasi-military language: ‘Scotland Isolated’, ‘England Cut in Half’. Even portions of London were captured; there was a night when no taxi driver would take you north of Regent’s Park. With coal strictly rationed, gas reduced to a blue ghost and electricity often cut off altogether, everybody in England was shivering. I remember how the actors played to nearly empty houses, heroically stripped down to their indoor clothes, while their audience huddled together in a tight clump, muffled to the chins in overcoats, sweaters and scarves. I remember a chic lunch party composed of the intellectual beau monde, at which an animated discussion of existentialism was interrupted by one of the guests exclaiming piteously: ‘Oh, I’m so cold!’ Two or three of my friends said to me then: ‘Believe us, this is worse than the war!’ By which I understood them to mean that the situation couldn’t by any stretch of the imagination be viewed as a challenge to self-sacrifice or an inspiration to patriotism; it was merely hell.

            Nevertheless, I have to confess, with the egotism of a tourist, that the blizzard did a great deal to ‘make’ my visit. It gave me a glimpse of the country in crisis which helped me to some faint idea of what the war years had been like. And, besides this, the cold certainly increased one’s energy and sharpened one’s senses. There was a great deal to be seen in London that winter—particularly in the art galleries, where many new and talented painters were exhibiting. It was then that I acquired, through only to a very modest degree, the good habit of buying pictures.

            My departure was sad, but enlivened by some moments of excitement. For the Queen Elizabeth, on which I was to sail for New York, had just run aground on a shifting sandbank called The Brambles while entering Southampton Water. It was thought that she might repeat the same accident on her outbound voyage. She didn’t, but we all held our breaths as we moved over the danger spot and the brown churned water showed the narrowness of our scrape.

            So ended my most memorable visit to London. Since then, I have returned three times—in 1948, in 1952, and again this year—and always with great happiness. But still—it is not quite the same. That precious sense of strangeness and discovery is lost. I doubt if I shall ever get it back.


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