Walking in London with Dickens
I’m currently reading Our Mutual Friend for the first time. Yesterday, the description of an early spring in London perfectly captured the bitter cold I experienced when living there from December through May three years ago. One is compelled to walk in London, and even more so when living with a misanthropic companion, as I was then. So I walked, tramping across icy grass and winding around muddy puddles through Hampstead Heath to the warmth of a cozy corner and a hot toddy at Spaniards Inn, the 16th century pub which appears in Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers and Bram Stoker’s Dracula (and perhaps inspired Keats to write “Ode to a Nightingale”). Or, for a shorter walk, I’d cut across St. John’s Wood, past the barracks where Her Majesty The Queen’s ceremonial Saluting Battery drilled on their steeds, to Trojka, a Russian tea room in Primrose Hill for tea with cherry syrup and a sweet pancake filled with cream cheese and sultanas.
From Our Mutual Friend:
It was not summer yet, but spring; and it was not gentle spring ethereally mild, as in Thomson’s Seasons, but nipping spring with an easterly wind, as in Johnson’s, Jackson’s, Dickson’s, Smith’s, and Jones’s Seasons. The grating wind sawed rather than blew; and as it sawed, the sawdust whirled about the sawpit. Every street was a sawpit, and there were no top-sawyers; every passenger was an under-sawyer, with the sawdust blinding him and choking him.
That mysterious paper currency which circulates in London when the wind blows, gyrated here and there and everywhere. Whence can it come, whither can it go? It hangs on every bush, flutters in every tree, is caught flying by the electric wires, haunts every enclosure, drinks at every pump, cowers at every grating, shudders upon every plot of grass, seeks rest in vain behind the legions of iron rails. In Paris, where nothing is wasted, costly and luxurious city though it be, but where wonderful human ants creep out of holes and pick up every scrap, there is no such thing. There, it blows nothing but dust. There, sharp eyes and sharp stomachs reap even the east wind, and get something out of it.
The wind sawed, and the sawdust whirled. The shrubs wrung their many hands, bemoaning that they had been over-persuaded by the sun to bud; the young leaves pined; the sparrows repented of their early marriages, like men and women; the colours of the rainbow were discernible, not in floral spring, but in the faces of the people whom it nibbled and pinched. And ever the wind sawed, and the sawdust whirled.
When the spring evenings are too long and light to shut out, and such weather is rife, the city which Mr Podsnap so explanatorily called London, Londres, London, is at its worst. Such a black shrill city, combining the qualities of a smoky house and a scolding wife; such a gritty city; such a hopeless city, with no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky; such a beleaguered city, invested by the great Marsh Forces of Essex and Kent. So the two old schoolfellows felt it to be, as, their dinner done, they turned towards the fire to smoke. Young Blight was gone, the coffee- house waiter was gone, the plates and dishes were gone, the wine was going—but not in the same direction.