The elevator is one of the terrifying old-fashioned kind with a metal latticework that clanks across, through which you can see the shaft as you sink below street level into the cavernous unknown. The red and yellow treads of now-unused stairways spiral past like the double helix of subterranean DNA.
There are only two of us in the elevator; both of us wear lab coats, hairnets, and blue plastic bags over our shoes. Down we go, 14 floors below the Northern Line into the heart of Clapham, a London borough south of the Thames. I am on a mission to discover some of the city’s oldest and newest attractions. And it turns out that the place where London's buried history meets its emergent future isRead more
Why do some authors stay famous, while others fade from history’s roll of honor? When it was published in 1811, Mary Brunton’s racy novel Self-Control was a runaway bestseller. Although its theme was moral fortitude, it was wildly exciting. An ardent suitor, Hargrave, kidnapped the heroine, Laura Montreville. Despite loving her captor, she resisted his improper advances and passionate mood swings. Her daring escape from Quebec involved piloting a birch bark canoe over a waterfall:Read more
Birds of prey are mysterious. Most of us glimpse them at close quarters only occasionally. We hear the “peow-peow” of a hunting buzzard overhead and sight a pale, feathered under-carriage gliding on unseen thermals. Or the disquiet of other, smaller birds alerts us to an aerial dogfight: crows trying to mob a kestrel near their nest. If we are very lucky, or well-briefed, we may raise our binoculars to a shaking branch where an eagle with an egg-yolk yellow beak and a livid eye is perched like a vengeful angel atop a Christmas tree.Read more
It is autumn and I am making a pilgrimage by sea to a literary gravestone. On my left rise the primeval, groined, and gullied mountains of Skye; on my right is the wild coast of Knoydart, one of the least populated regions of western Scotland. The colors of the land in this season are heart-stoppingly beautiful. Bracken and birch paint the hills gold, ochre, and saddle-brown; the heather is purple as a winter dusk. Light falls differently in this part of the world, where the air is free of particulate matter.Read more
Charlotte Brontë liked to let her hair down linguistically from time to time. In an unpublished piece of early fiction, she imagines a scene at a horse race in which the owner of the defeated favorite suspects that his horse was doped. Ned Laury introduces an underworld informer, Jerry Sneak—the man who interfered with the horse—but demands: “Who’ll provide the stumpy, the blunt, the cash as it were to pay for the liquor that cousin of mine will require before he peaches?”Read more
If at first you don’t secede, try, try again. This might be the motto of Alex Salmond’s Scottish National party, which since 1934 has been advocating the proposition that Scotland should be an independent country, governed not from London but from Edinburgh and able to make its own policy decisions about defense, immigration, taxation, and spending. On September 18, Scots will finally face a referendum about their future.Read more
There is a new reason to visit London. It is wooden, but lively. Old, but new. Shadowy, but luminous. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is a reconstruction of what an indoor theater might have looked and felt like around 1600, when Shakespeare was 36 and at the height of his career as an actor, theatrical entrepreneur, and dramatist.Read more
The investigator is chasing a suspect, who has just disappeared through a secret trapdoor. Breathlessly, the private dick follows the masked figure down a ladder into a dark passageway: It turns out to lead from the Belgravia mansion into the vault of a nearby bank. Our hero can see the thief in the act of grabbing the gold and making off—but the trapdoor closes behind the crook, leaving the detective unable to leave the crime scene and about to be apprehended by security guards.Read more
As my plane drops toward Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, I can see what look like multiple alternative runways: broad pink, blue, and yellow strips that turn the fields around the coast into the flags of an imaginary nation. They are bands of flowers—tulips, hyacinths, and daffodils—and the plane rushes towards them like an overstimulated bee.
In his short story “The Occasional Garden,” Saki pinpoints a subject dear to the British heart, but also key to its social anxieties. Elinor Rapsley is about to receive a lunch visit from a woman whom she detests, Gwenda Pottingdon. Gwenda’s garden is the envy of the neighborhood; Elinor’s is a barren wasteland. Gwenda is coming on purpose to crow over Elinor’s pathetic pansies while describing her own rare and sumptuous roses.
Every Christmas Eve, M. R. James (1862-1936), the celebrated scholar of medieval literature and provost of King’s College, Cambridge, enacted a strange ritual. After participating in the Christmas service at King’s College Chapel—that miracle of 15th-century Gothic architecture whose soaring vaulted ceiling resembles vast skeletal hands clasped overhead—he repaired with a select group of scholars to his college room. Spiced ale and wine were quaffed as they settled by the fireside. Then all the candles but one were snuffed out.Read more
In the musical My Fair Lady, snooty dialectician Henry Higgins searches in vain for “purity” of expression in English; he winces at the Scots and the Irish, shudders at the Cockney London accent. His parting shot is, however, fired across the Atlantic: There even are places where English completely disappears, / In America they haven’t used it for years! sings the Englishman.Read more
Behind the suburbs, a black giant throws its ominous shadow—its damaged lip, its raised shoulder—against an azure sky. This is Naples: a city where you never need to look far for trouble. I am headed south, to a destination that has always been difficult to access by land. You can’t go over Vesuvius, so you must go around the volcano. The purple slopes are netted with grapevines. Oranges hang like Christmas baubles on the trees.Read more
Reader, have you ever been inside a London club?
I do not mean a jazz club, or a nightclub, or a golf club. I refer to those pillared edifices on Pall Mall whose names are so blatantly not blazoned on their façades. These are the venerable “Gentlemen’s Clubs” of London, founded two centuries ago to provide men of a certain social standing with a cloistered sanctum in which to congregate, to converse, and to carouse.Read more
John Keats was to Romantic poetry as James Dean was to cinema: young, gifted, and doomed. His charisma lies in the astonishing energy, humor, and inspiration that he packed into a small physical frame and an appallingly brief time frame: He died of tuberculosis aged barely 25. His eyes were always on the skies. He is the poet of the moon, of new planets and bright stars, of clouds, gold, grey, and dun, of mist, of snow, and Blue!—’Tis the life of heaven.Read more
Biography is a form of love affair, the more intense because it can never be consummated. Like lovers, biographers rifle through their subjects’ letters and diaries for evidence of the absent one’s activities and affections. They guard their subject’s reputation and become jealous of rivals. They profess to interpret, to comprehend, to promote, but they requite the years that they devote to their chosen figure of fascination by exercising the power of life or death over them, the right to immortalize or to dissect.Read more
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