Thursday, 10 November 2011

Streets Ahead

Streets Ahead is the new occasional column from London Walks' Pen David Tucker

"Men, not walls, make a city."

So runs the old Chinese proverb.

I always hear it in tandem with Ruthven Todd's great 1942 poem about blitzed London that Tom sometimes quotes on his Blitz walk. Even the poem's title - These Are Facts - does it for me. Every time. "It" being the tearing up, the catch-in-the-throat. So plain, so ordinary, so bare - and in consequence so moving. Here's the rest of the poem.

These are facts, observe them how you will:
Forget for a moment the medals and the glory,
The clean shape of the bomb, designed to kill,
And the proud headlines of the papers' story.

Remember the walls of brick that forty years
Had nursed to make a neat though shabby home;
The impertinence of death, ignoring tears,
That smashed the house and left untouched the Dome.

Bodies in death are not magnificent or stately,
Bones are not elegant that blast has shattered;
This sorry, stained and crumpled rag was lately
A man whose life was made of little things that mattered;

Now he is just a nuisance, liable to stink,
A breeding-ground for flies, a test-tube for disease:
Bury him quickly and never pause to think,
What is the future worth to men like these?

People are more than places, more than pride;
A million photographs record the works of Wren;
A city remains a city on credit from the tide
That flows among its rocks, a sea of men.

Marvellous, isn't it? I'll be coming back to it - and to a couple of its fellows - in a future post. Coming back to it with my lit crit London hat on.

But I'm hoeing a different row today. The Chinese proverb and the Ruthven Todd poem are cues for this observation: People, not bricks and mortar, make a walk.

And that word "people" here is just so apposite. So apposite because it catches up both the tale (the walk, the route, what's pointed out, what's said) and the teller of the tale (the guide).

Since my China trip I've taken to calling it The Forbidden City. We used to call it "the realm" - or sometimes "the family jewels".

The Forbidden City because it's only the special ones, the gifted ones, the chosen few that can go there, that can take you there. "There" - the realm, The Forbidden City - being the territory beyond the Blue Plaque, beyond the guidebook, beyond [whisper it] Wikipedia.

Stay tuned. I.E. a riveting example or two - how does "green face powder" or "the sexual centre of the house" grab you? - coming up in Part II.


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