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June 13, 2012
"Have you any distinct idea of Spitalfields, dear reader? A general one, no doubt you have—an impression that there are certain squalid streets, lying like narrow black trenches, far below the steeples, somewhere about London,—towards the East, perhaps..." (Dickens, "Spitalfields")
"I am a stranger here": An East End Exploration took us where many an urban observer has been before, through the crooked streets, marketplaces, and bustling thoroughfares that so intrigued Dickens, Henry Mayhew, Arthur Morrison, and many more since. Yet unlike many of these narratives, this walking tour sought to capture the diverse complexity of Spitalfields' history, presenting the multiple perspectives that comprise the myriad identities of the area. Lead through the streets by Alan Gilbey - lifelong East Ender and excellent guide - and an energetic supporting cast of actors, this was part tour, part theatre, part history, that continued to inform, amuse and entertain for the two hours that we walked the streets on a cold and drizzly Sunday afternoon.
Taking the role of "social explorers", we moved between locations which each revealed a different perspective on the region. Having learnt about the origin of the name Spitalfields - a contraction of "Hospital Fields", as the area originally lay in empty land behind a hospital - we started with a heavily gated building and the story of the Huguenots, French Protestant refugees who brought the silk industry into the area in the 17th century; the building we stood at was one where imported goods were moved after shipping, away from the docks but just outside the city bounds. This was the first in a long tradition of textile manufacturers, and as we moved into Petticoat Lane we heard about the Jewish community that came to populate the region from the late 17th century, bringing in weaving expertise and establishing the Sunday markets. From there, it was swiftly past the multistory car park that stands on the site where Jack the Ripper murdered his last victim (this was emphatically not a Jack-the-Ripper tour), and on into one of the narrow, crooked streets that characterizes our idea of the nineteenth-century slum; for by the Victorian era, Spitalfields had declined to become one of the nation's biggest social problems, seemingly beyond all hope and the subject of many social commentaries. One such text, Jack London's The People of the Abyss, provided vivid illustration of this theme, and several passages from the text were read and performed at various sites throughout the tour, giving a continuous narrative (and temporal) thread to our understanding of the space.
As we reached Brick Lane, the final parts of the region's history unfolded with stories about the Bangladeshi community developing in the later 20th century, bringing new cultural influences to the area whilst retaining the textile industry. All around us, though, was the contemporary history of an area that has been regenerated in recent years through an influx of artists that gave the region a trendy urban edge which is now becoming increasingly mainstream, causing the artists to move on and out; meanwhile, the city encroaches ever closer as buildings start to be bought up for office space (although happily, just last week the old fruit and wool exchange was saved from conversion into an office block).
The tour came to an end in a church where we encountered stories about the Salvation Army's attempts to save the poor, and then for the last half hour we had the opportunity to hear more stories of the streets. Alan Gilbey recounted his own experience of growing up in the area, focusing on the 1980s when a group of teenagers were encouraged to write about their life in the East End, eventually forming a published collection which marked a significant shift in the narrative history of Spitalfields; no longer narrated by the urban explorer, the people constructed their own accounts of Spitalfields life. The final part of the tour continued this theme: in the format of speed-networking/dating, we moved between tables where actors inhabited the role of different characters to each tell a 5-minute story about an aspect of Spitalfields life: stories included the matchgirls' and sailors strikes of the late 19th century, a more complex account of the different groups and communities that have inhabited Spitalfields, a story about the Salvation Army, and the bandstand at the centre of a park. It was an imaginative and effective end to the tour, a chance to explore more of the detail behind the bigger narratives.
The tour was a highly enjoyable experience, excellently well organised and performed. For me, it was a useful opportunity to hear a different set of perspectives on a region that, just a couple of weeks ago, I'd attended a conference about. It's also very helpful to have finally been on a walking tour and I'll be thinking more about the experience as I work more on thoughts about literary urban tours.
The tour was part of Spitalfields Music Festival which is still running until 23rd June and has an exciting line-up of events over the next week; the tour has now ended, but Alan Gilbey runs East End history walks which, if this experience was anything to go by, I'd highly recommend checking out.
December 16, 2011
Following on from my previous musings on Dickens 2012 and literary tourism, this new apptakes the literary tour to a new level: an interactive map of Dickens's "dark London" which promises to "take users on a journey through the darker side of Charles Dickens’ London". In light of my previous post, this suggested some similar questions about the literary tourism and the mapping of represented/historical spaces onto contemporary "real" spaces. By virtue of its nature, though, an ipad app removes what I previously perceived as a crucial component of the literary tour: its opportunity for a mobile experience of history and the author.
I was intrigued, then, as to what the app would deliver; and the answer is, not an awful lot. The basis of the app is an interactive map of London, in which an 1862 map is overlaid onto a contemporary satellite image; a sliding bar at the bottom of the page allows you to move gradually from one to the other, along with the usual touch-screen navigation and zoom tools around both of the maps. For someone who loves maps, it's nice to have an 1862 city map to hand (although the app as a whole is frustratingly ill-referenced so I'm not sre which map edition this is based on) and the sliding time-scale is neatly done, although of limited use after a few goes.
The map screen contains links to the "editions" that are being released every month - graphic novels that incorporate excerpts from Dickens's writing, primarily Sketches by Boz as well as some of the novels such as Bleak House in this first edition, illustrated and with an accompanying narration. There are also "hotspots" which offer more contextual information on some pages. The emphasis in the content, as I suspect will be the case in subsequent editions, is on excerpts detailing the streets of London, whilst accompanying images on each page attempt to "bring to life" the written descriptions:
"from the irregular square into which he has plunged, the streets and courts dart in all directions, until they are lost in the unwholesome vapour which hangs over the house-tops, and renders the dirty perspective uncertain and confined"
Except here the app not so much falls flat, as simply undoes itself; because Dickens's descriptions of the streets speak for themselves, or rather say more than any image, map, or accompanying historical fact can offer. It doesn't take anything else to breathe life into the written word, and placing the text in this context ultimately only serves to highlight that, really, the accompanying paraphenelia is redundant: ultimately, it's the written word that stands out most strongly here. Not only that, but this all detracts from the complexity and meaning that lies in Dickens's representations of the city, reducing the idea of "Dickens's London" to a single meaning and suggesting that these excerpts are little more than historical fact that we read for the truths they tell us about the Victorian streets.
As with the literary tour, this resides in a fundamental misreading of the relationship between real and literary spaces, but positions this within a wider framework of misreading the relationship between literature and history/ text and culture.
December 01, 2011
As term draws to a close and 2012 gets nearer I've been catching up on the latest Dickens bicentenary news in order to plan a few trips to exhibitions over the vacation. It's particularly interesting noting some of the themes that emerge in coverage: the emphasis on film adaptations is hardly surprising, and neither is the biographical focus around Dickens's life and times. Another theme is that of literary tourism: the association of Dickens and London is central to the cultural idea of Dickens, and it's therefore no surprise that events reiterating the notion of "Dickens's London" feature in the 2012 celebrations. There are events like the Museum of London's "Dickens and London" exhibition which promises to "recreate the atmosphere of Victorian London through sound and projection" or a talk on "Oliver Twist's London". More interesting, for me, are the Dickens-themed walking tours such as the Guardian's audio walks, a podcast to listen to whilst walking a specific route; the latest walk traces the places associated both with the author's life and David Copperfield (Dickens's "most autobiographical" novel, as the website points out).
But what is the purpose of this kind of literary tourism? What does a novel gain from our walking the streets it depicts some 150 years later? A form of connection with author and characters? To reach a new understanding of the textual representation through seeing the "real" thing? Simply a more interesting way of experiencing history?
I'm immediately sceptical and resistant to the connections that this makes between place, text and author; aside from the problems of reading a text as strictly biographical, this understanding of literary place resides in a fundamental misjudgement about both the relationship between real and represented places/spaces. A tour of a text’s locations draws together text and "real" space as though literary place is a neutral reflection of a location, and space is presented as offering some kind of authentic connection to, or reflection of, the text. It also overlooks the slight problem of history: how do we read contemporary space as indicative of the past? What does it mean to search for a text's meaning in a place over 150 years later?
Nonetheless, there's such cultural importance around the notion of Dickens and place, and an attraction in "experiencing" that place in some way, that it's worth thinking more about why this is so resonant today.
I've been thinking about the urban tour recently in my work on mobility in Bleak House: one of the central moments of the novel sees Jo, the poor street boy, leading Lady Dedlock to view the places associated with her long lost, and now deceased, lover:
“Are you the boy I have read of in the papers?’ she asks behind her veil. […]
‘Listen and be silent. Don’t talk to me, and stand farther from me! Can you shew me all those places that were spoken of in the account I read? The place he wrote for, the place he died at, the place where you were taken to, and the place where he was buried?’” (p. 261)
In the passage that follows there are strong resonances with the urban tour and, more specifically, with the literary biographical tour: Jo takes the role of paid guide as he leads Lady Dedlock through the streets to view the places associated with another’s life. A strong connection is forged here between place and knowledge: this passage doesn’t offer any new information to either characters or reader, but the tour serves to affirm the connection between Lady Dedlock and the dead law-writer. For Lady Dedlock, the walk brings her back into a connection with the past and into understanding of a history she hasn't experienced. It is a locational, place-bound knowledge which has to be experienced and the act of walking the streets serves as a reiterative act that reawakens old thoughts.
Biographical literary tours perhaps offer a similar kind of knowledge and knowledge-gaining process: reaffirming an idea we already have (e.g. the notion of Dickens's London) which somehow seems more valuable in the physical act of experiencing that place. There is, perhaps, a (perceived) value in experiencing place, a sense that being in a place serves to reinforce abstract knowledge. In an insightful post about a recent Dickens discovery, Amber Regis reflects on the value of material objects in biographical readings: the objects offer, she writes, "an insight into the life narratives that emerge from, and are constructed by, material objects -- human interactions with objects, and the crafting and shaping of objects, become a form of storytelling". I think there's a similar process in literary tours of crafting and constructing a narrative through human interaction with place; the city is experienced like a material object, giving the idea of Dickens and London a physical manifestation in the city streets.
But Dickens's use of mobility in Bleak House also points us towards a possible wider cultural resonance inherent in these ideas: national identity. In Bleak House, acts of mobility serve to reinforce the idea of nationality, solidifying an abstract idea in a concrete experience of the physical space of the nation. Literary tours perhaps serve a similar purpose: after Shakespeare, Dickens is arguably the author we most strongly associate with English culture, and the urban literary tour serves to reiterate this connection in terms of national space, investing specific sites with national cultural meaning and thus giving the idea of Dickens as national symbol a physical manifestation in place. More than offering any illuminating ideas about the text or author, the literary tour ties both to the places of the nation as a way of locating and strengthening a cultural idea, and of investing the "space of the nation" with (national) cultural meaning.