Once, as I was walking through the deserted streets of a provincial town in Italy which was strange to me, on a hot summer afternoon, I found myself in a quarter the character of which could not long remain in doubt. Nothing but painted women were to be seen at the windows of the small houses, and I hastened to leave the narrow street at the next turning. But after having wandered about for a while without being directed, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence was now beginning to excite attention. I hurried away once more, but only to arrive yet a third time by devious paths in the same place. Now, however, a feeling overcame me which I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad enough to abandon my exploratory walk and get straight back to the piazza I had left a short while before.
Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny, 1919
(c) The Freud Museum, London
What a strange summer it is, this year. Sometimes I forget that we have entered a ‘new normal’, other times it feels all too present. I think back to my last visit to London in March in order to attend a weekend writing workshop; a trip which was booked in November and tentatively taken before travel restrictions came into place. I returned home on the Monday after three days out of the country to find everything beginning to close down in Switzerland – including my own workplace. At the time, it was difficult to reconcile this event with the busy streets of the capital. I thought back to the packed West End theatre where I’d laughed and cried at a wonderful performance of Uncle Vanya; the morning I’d spent at the Tate’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition, already quickly filling up with visitors at opening time on a Monday.
There was, however, an unspoken feeling that it would not be business as usual for much longer. An unease permeated the city, in the way that people joked too loudly and appeared to affect an air of nonchalance in the face of the impending pandemic. As I browsed the plant stalls on Columbia Road Market early on that Sunday morning, chewing on a fresh bagel, I felt as if I was witnessing the last gasps of freedom. It was – I imagined – an inkling into how Londoners might have felt on the eve of both world wars, the sights and sounds of the capital already feeling like the backdrop to a bad play full of hammy actors. I was reminded of a line in Kate Atkinson’s latest book, Transcription, set in World War Two, in which the heroine states at the beginning of conflict: The war still seemed like a matter of inconvenience rather than a threat. (A sentence which could just has easily have applied to that strange and uncanny time at the beginning of March).
On my way to the Tate the following day, I passed Downing Street and saw a catering van pull up outside number 10; while only yards away in Westminster subway, a girl with a racking cough who was sleeping rough craved a hot chocolate. As I handed her the drink she confessed she was terrified of catching the virus. Only when I arrived back home and watched the evening’s news did I realise that just round the corner at Westminster Abbey the last minute preparations for the yearly Commonwealth Service were being put in place: a celebration which, in the light of recent events, now feels like an anachronism. Strange times, indeed.
I’m not sure now when I will next return to London. I told a woman I met on the writing workshop that I’d love to meet up for a riverside pint in September. But that almost feels too soon. Perhaps I was already slowly falling out of love with the place in any case. What if all that wonder and magic had only been in my head, and the quest for my lost ancestors had simply heightened those feelings?
That last Sunday evening in the capital I felt strangely ill at ease. An old friend I’d agreed to meet for dinner had to cancel due to flu (not the virus, as it turned out). Unexpectedly alone, I had the urge to be with other people, and yet there was no-one with whom I could meet at the last minute. As I set off through Spitalfields, I was able to console myself with the thought that I could enjoy the long walk back to my digs in King’s Cross. At the last minute I decided to detour through the upper floor of Liverpool Street Station, entering from Bishopsgate and taking what I thought was a shortcut away from the surrounding busy roads. But the layout of the building confused me and all of a sudden I found myself enclosed in an area of high walls and steel and glass that did not seem to have an exit. A feeling of panic rose up in me. I felt painfully isolated by the alienating post-modern architecture and the lack of people – a sharp contrast to the busy streets around Spitalfields Market.
Liverpool Street Station (c) Network Rail
Usually I love to walk the city on my own, especially such a route through the back streets of villagey Clerkenwell and Islington. Despite not having family connections to the area, I had fond memories of Clerkenwell as it is the home of the London Metropolitan Archives (I place I have grown to know well over the last few years). Almost a decade earlier, in March 2011, the LMA was one of the first places I visited when I restarted my family research, and it was while searching for the location of the archives that I stumbled across Clerkenwell Green and the nearby Priory. I could not believe that I’d never thought to visit the area when I’d lived in London in the 1980s, and this thought then spurred me on to make the most of my time ‘on the ground’ whenever I was in the city.
Clerkenwell Green (Composite), (c) Nevilley on en.wikipedia – Clerkenwell
I remembered that such feelings of alienation were not new, even though it was years since I’d had that off-kilter sense of being utterly alone in the city. When I was living in London in the mid-eighties I was no stranger to such waves of crippling loneliness. Although time and experience had dulled the memory, I had a flashback to the way I’d felt when I returned to the capital after a weekend away visiting friends: the sadness of the shuttered streets on a Sunday night, everyone at home and busy preparing for the Monday. This feeling of being rejected by the city grew stronger as I walked back to my digs through streets that all of a sudden felt grim and hostile, despite the fact they had seemed quirky and interesting only hours earlier.
Retracing my route, I cut through Bunhill Fields burial grounds, striding along the old flagstone pathway through the gravestones shortly before the gates were due to close. That morning I’d stopped to admire the spring flowers planted between the graves in the style of a woodland garden. Then I had felt a surge of unexpected happiness to find this corner of an imagined pastoral setting in such an urban environment. Now the scene only seemed to highlight the surrounding cityscape and the graveyard walkway did nothing to lift my spirits, appearing instead claustrophobic with the signs of departed souls all around me. I quickened my step until I exited at the other side and set off through the deserted streets of Clerkenwell looking forward to reaching the youth hostel where I knew there would be a comfortable buzz in the café bar.
Bluebells, Bunhill Fields, (c) David Fisher, Creative Commons
Walking through the crowds around King’s Cross, a jumble of faces and loud voices, gesticulations and shouts, I felt as if I could not breathe. I had not liked the quiet streets of Clerkenwell and Islington, but neither did I feel comfortable with this seething sea of strangers around me, everyone jostling for space on the narrow pavements. It was a relief to slip through the electronic door of the hostel and into the fuggy warmth of the foyer café bar. I ordered something to eat and drink and found a space next to a woman from my dorm room. As we chatted about our disparate reasons for being in London, those strange feelings of alienation began to dissipate. Perhaps all I’d needed was some genial company with something wholesome to eat and drink.
The next day I had all but forgotten my experience of the night before. But later I allowed myself to think about how we respond as individuals to city spaces and how the same places can quickly change from welcoming to hostile, depending on our own moods. Had my great-great grandfather, James Skelton, sometimes felt such feelings of alienation when he arrived as a young man from Yorkshire two hundred years previously? The late Georgian capital would have been full of wonders but could also have been at times a threatening place for an ingenue from the Yorkshire Dales. The contrast between the urban and rural would have been much greater in the days before the railways, with the sights and sounds and smells of the metropolis so much more intense. As one of Bunhill’s famous ‘residents’, the poet and visionary William Blake, wrote in Jerusalem early in the 19th century: I behold London, a Human awful wonder of God.
Freud’s theory of the uncanny describes the unsettling effect that occurs when the familiar is suddenly seen as unfamiliar: when what is expected to be seen is not there. This phenomenon often occurs when a place appears to be known to someone, but perhaps not as well as previously thought. A city such as London which is in constant change and flux is likely to throw up these situations, which are then further enhanced by personal feelings of sadness, fear or vulnerability. Perhaps that is why places like London evoke such strong feelings in us. One time the capital can open up, as if wanting to share its wonderful secrets; another time it can feel like a closed city which does not wish to let you partake of its mystery and faded glamour.
I have experienced both those sides of London, perhaps most strongly when I lived there in my early twenties and everything about the city was new and exciting. The Pet Shop Boys’ video for West End Girls (above) encapsulate that strange feeling for me, even when I watch it again over thirty-five years later. However, getting to know the capital again through exploring the history of my London family has added another layer of complexity to my relationship with the place. It is this uneasy connection which I intend to examine in greater detail in a future post.
The Incidental Genealogist, August 2020