Wednesday, August 17, 2011

London, summer 2011

            My last post in early July predicted that going to London would disrupt my blogging. Alas, it did so more completely than I had expected. From jetlag to distractions both pleasant and annoying, something always stood in the way of sitting at the computer and focusing on family history. Now I hope to return to my customary weekly pace.

Stores boarded up as a precaution in Islington
            The five-week period abroad was in many ways a dire spell. When we arrived, England was abuzz over the scandal of cell phone hacking by journalists and it was rumored that the Cameron government might fall. That story was pushed off the front page by the massacre in Norway, and the massacre gave way in turn to the grotesque spectacle of the U.S. Congress threatening to force the government to default on its debts. Then it looked as if the euro might collapse, and the stock market crashed. Finally, mobs rioted in London, looted stores and burned buildings.
             Yet Exmouth Market, our neighborhood shopping area, was abuzz with people going about their everyday business. The government did not fall. The Norwegian atrocity proved to be the work of an isolated Nordic madman, not the first strike in a new wave of terror. Congress stepped back from the brink. Only time will tell whether we are doomed to economic disaster, but there was no sign of distress evident around us. The mobs committed appalling acts, but the scale of the disorder was much exaggerated by the press and it was soon brought under control. The pundits quoted Yeats a lot, but for the time being at least, the center has held and mere anarchy has not been loosed upon the world.
Exmouth Market
News of the World, final issue
            The riots stunned many people, because England has a justified reputation for stability. Two venerable institutions perished over the five bad weeks. The newspaper most implicated in the hacking scandal, the News of the World, published continuously since 1843, closed forever on 10 July. The Reeves furniture store in Croydon, founded in 1867 and still run by the fifth generation of the family, was torched; the building survived the blitz, but has now been demolished. In reality, though, London is constantly renewing itself, reconfiguring the skyline with dramatic new buildings with nicknames like “the Gherkin”, “the Shard” and “the Glass Gonad”, and creating new zones of activity with ambitious projects like the expanded underground lines and the 2012 Olympics Park. More often than not, the new harmonizes with the old and preserves it, as in St. Pancras Station, where the Eurostar terminates.

            Exmouth Market changes relatively little from year to year. Yet we remember it from twenty years ago, when it was a derelict alleyway, home to winos and a few tawdry shops. It is now lined with trendy bars, boutiques and restaurants, but they preserve something of the by-gone era. Clark’s is a genuine survivor, one of the few pie, mash and eel cafes left in London, and a destination eatery for the nostalgic. Medcalf retains its butchershop façade, but that red circle on the window is a Michelin certificate. One of our favorite places, The Ambassador, closed this summer, but by next summer, a new one will occupy the space.

The vacated site of The Ambassador
British paperback cover of The Hare with Amber Eyes
            On the long flight home, I read a book which several of our friends had warmly recommended, The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal. The author is a famous ceramic artist, and the title refers to a netsuke, a miniature Japanese sculpture. But the book is really a history of his ancestors, the Ephrussi family, who were Jewish bankers, originally from the Russian Empire in what is now Ukraine, where they made a fortune in wheat exporting, and then established a financial empire to rival the Rothschilds’ in Vienna and Paris. Charles Ephrussi lived in Paris, where he was a patron to the Impressionists and an habitué of the salons of the Belle Époque; he is reputed to be a model for his friend Marcel Proust’s character Charles Swann. Charles Ephrussi bought a collection of 264 netsuke in the 1870s, the heyday of Japonism in France. The memoir follows the collection to Vienna, where it went as a wedding gift to Charles’s cousin and survived miraculously intact through the two world wars, and then to Tokyo, which became the home of the author’s great uncle Ignace Ephrussi in 1947. Eventually it was left to Edmund de Waal himself and now resides in London.

            That outline of the events does nothing to convey the fascinating portraits of the people and the societies. Nor does it suggest the rich meditation on the role these netsuke, other works of art, and even more ordinary things, play in our lives. Near the end of his story, de Waal asks, “Why keep things, archive your intimacies?” And he explains both his uneasiness about “living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission” and his urgent feeling that “I must be careful over these objects and their stories. I must get it right.” Finally, as an artist who makes his living “from letting things go”, he observes that “Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live”. Things of all kinds, including stories, acquire their meanings through use, which of course implies the risk that they may be altered, broken, destroyed or lost.
            These reflections touched me as if I were reading my own unarticulated thoughts. I wish I had Edmund de Waal’s gift for creating both objects and stories, but even without it, I feel that I share an aspiration with him. Near the end of my London stay, I heard that the new History Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke will have a display built around some things from the Breckinridge and Watts estates – two portraits, an Indian medal, and a girandole mirror from Grove Hill. That mirror has traveled a bit in its two centuries of existence, not as far or as dramatically as the netsuke, but it has been used in the same spirit, I believe. It hung on the wall of the house I grew up in, and some of its meaning lies in the wear and tear it endured at my own thoughtless childish hands. As de Waal might say, the girandole begins again

The girandole mirror from Grove Hill, in my parents’ house in 1983
The object at the bottom is my nephew’s hat, with a Canadian flag

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