A Bibliophile’s Sauntering in and around London
By Nabanita Sengupta
Did I suddenly jump into a collage of texts? Each a page from some author lodged in some crevice of my memory? Or was it a real life experience? I nudged myself, blinked my eyes and looked around, but somewhere the lines between textual and the actual got blurred. I was wandering in a world designed by my readings – from childhood to the present.
All kinds of images assembled in my mind, conjured up from some unsuspecting, long visited corner, so much so that a bottle of lemonade in a small food joint triggered a chain of nostalgia.
Fond thoughts of lazy afternoons filtered through my memory, of myself as a skinny girl of ten or eleven, hungrily tearing through the action-packed pages of four kids and a dog as Enid Blyton got herself a permanent seat in my heart. She was the one, who had made the simple homemade lemonades appear as the most exotic drink ever. Picnic lunches of ham sandwiches, bacon, lemonades, and orangeades, huge cake and ice creams by the beach became our dream menu that we grew up fantasizing about. The Famous Five and their beach picnics, the ownership of a whole island, and their fascinating adventures left us envious of a life too marvellous to be true. In my recently concluded trip to England, my reader-self responded to every little thing that I found made familiar through my reading. Result was that I was quite excited to locate a bottle of lemonade in a roadside eatery and wasted no time in getting it for myself.
Thus began my exploration of London and its surroundings, continuously intervened, enriched, and shaped by my readings over the years. It was like a game of treasure-hunt in the world of literature; literature that I had grown up with, that had shaped me and that is now my love and livelihood too – children’s literature, young adult readings, and more serious stuff, all featured here. So I looked at the city and its surroundings through various pairs of eyes, some home grown, mostly foreign but eyes that had moulded my vision and formed my gaze across years. Snippets from my various readings kept popping up before me of their own accord, like scenes from a motion picture merging the past with the present, the real with the textual.
The most overwhelming presence, in the course of my trip, was that of our home-grown travel writer, a Bengali woman author right out of that nineteenth century milieu, the period that crisscrossed with imperialism, nationalism, multiculturalism, and much more. I had been actually carrying with myself, Krishnabhabini Das’ works (the first Bengali lady to write a travelogue on England way back in 1885, named Englandey Bangamahila or A Bengali Lady in England)) for almost a decade, thanks to my doctoral dissertation. Her words came back to me as soon as I stepped out of the airport to enter the famous London tube. She had said, “The experience of moving under the earth in darkness like insects appeared quite new to me” (My translation). More than a century later, underground railways was not anymore a novel experience for an Indian, but I tried to visualise the underground railways of London back in those days, when steam engine was the norm and the tunnels were dark and damp. I had to do miles underground – going from Heathrow on the west of London to the East End Docklands. Hopping from one tube to another, over the ground and under, I could understand why my Bengali lady was so awestruck but at the same time uncomfortable travelling in it. Of course the London tube of those days would be to its present day avatar what perhaps Neanderthals are to us! Yet the fact that such a network of conveyance existed then, must have impressed her a great deal.
I had kept my first day in London an unplanned one. Starting with the British Library, where I mixed pleasure and work, I walked down to St. Pancras – Kings Cross Station, crossing the magnificent Renaissance Hotel on way, the huge piece of gothic architecture that was first opened in 1873 as the Midland Grand hotel.
As I approached King’s Cross Station, I entered, not to catch a train or tube, but as if pulled by some enchantment, with a niggling thought at the back of my mind, could I walk past the wall and find platform 9¾. But I was just a Muggle after all; in all probability, I would bump into the barrier between platforms nine and ten and hurt myself. Suddenly, as if by some magic, I located the Platform 9 ¾! My heart skipped a beat, I flew towards it, and landed but with a thud! That was just a Harry Potter souvenir shop! So what and who cared! I entered and became a part of the milling crowd, browsing, touching, admiring Harry Potter badges, t-shirts, mugs, house badges and what not! I was floored by the Godric Gryffindor sword! After many a longing looks, I tore myself out of the shop but not before giving myself a small but cute Gryffindor badge. After all, a souvenir is a must in such cases.
My next stop was the Oxford Street. I sauntered lazily along its length and breadth, looking at the numerous wares at display on the roadside as well as in the glass-door shops. The atmosphere in the street was exhilarating and I was tempted to pick up a few souvenirs. One shop I enjoyed spending time in was the Lush, the place for handmade cosmetics. But when I eventually walked up to the famous Liberty Departmental Store in Marlborough Street, I was simply bowled over. Very few shopping malls could compare with its illustrious past, the fashion destination of the Pre-Raphaelites. I could not help but think of the footsteps that had once walked these corridors. So much of history lurked in every corner of this archaic mall, though not all of them very pleasant. I was reminded of the Indian villagers brought here and put on display to make oriental artefacts popular. Yet, time is the greatest leveller and here was I, the postcolonial Indian, coming here as a tourist, spending some leisure hours, directing my touristy gaze on articles on display. I was particularly fascinated by their ceramics and perfumes. By the time I stepped out of that place, the Western sun had declined further West, time to close the day.
As I chalked up the itinerary for the following days, my first destination was Bath. It was a journey I was eagerly looking forward to as I had heard a lot about the GBR or the Great Britain Railways. And the trains did not fail my expectation. The sparkling coaches, good wi-fi speed, and constant updates regarding the journey on the electronic display board as well as on public address system got me excited even before the journey began! As I happily multi-tasked, musing about real time sharing of photos that I could do with friends and families back home, and enjoying the view outside, my Bengali Lady came back to me. This time, she came with the meadows. One look from the train window and I could visualize her words, “As soon as you leave the city, you will see lush green fields on both sides of the road separated from each other by hedges, its beauty enhanced by an occasional big tree.” A few lines later, she continues, “Far off one can see few huts of the farmers” (my translation). I was thrilled to contemplate that an extensive topography had remained apparently undisturbed for at least a century and half, in spite of the march of civilization that had well begun post-industrial era. Undulating green plains with clumps of trees at distance, lazy, cud-chewing cattle at places and small farm houses came alive right before my eyes as the train sped forward.
In the picturesque town of Bath itself, the Roman Bath and the state rooms replaced Krishnabhabini for some time. The town soaked me in a kind of youthful happiness, a feeling impossible to avoid in the town of Darcy and Elizabeth. Of course, Bath was much more than Jane Austen, its importance dated back right to the days of Roman invasion in the Old English era. Roman bath stood as the chief chronicler of that history. But for me, it was Austen’s town. The town that had been the setting of so many of her novels. I loved visiting the assembly rooms, which were once the heart of the Georgian society, complete with its luxurious decor, huge, scintillating chandeliers and an extravagant air – I could visualise the grand ball dances being organised there with the entire beaux and belles of the town. I visualized the maidens and their suitors – Jane and Bingley, Emma and Knightly. Elizabeth and Darcy were not dancing, I visualized them sitting across each other, trying to outdo one another in haughtiness. What a treat to the eyes it was! Even when I returned home, I remained star-struck.
Next day I took another train. This time my destination was Canterbury and I soaked myself in its illustrious history. Murder in the cathedral! Who can forget King Henry the Second’s famous words: “will no one rid me of this turbulent priest” and its tragic conclusion. The cathedral has the area where Thomas Becket was assassinated, marked as ‘murder in the cathedral’, with a symbolic sculpting of four swords along the wall. Couldn’t resist thinking about T.S. Eliot’s fascinating play!
I took my time to explore the cathedral, though I could not do complete justice to it in absence of a guide; actually I had reached the cathedral at a time when none of their walking tours were available. And while am on it, let me also mention that these walking tours are an absolute must for any tourist interested in the history of a place. Though I missed one in Canterbury, I thoroughly enjoyed the ones I took in Bath and the London Towers. Coming back to Canterbury, my self-guided tour of the medieval England’s most famous and important cathedral raised as many questions as it answered. The goose bumps were difficult to be ignored while entering the crypt, the oldest part of the cathedral. Just imagine, this was the place where Archbishop Becket too had held his services.
As I stepped out of the cathedral, full of history and awe, I met whom, but Chaucer! He was looking grave with the book in his hand. A handful of students, completely oblivious to my interest in capturing that larger than life statue of Chaucer in my lens, kept leaning upon the base, using it to keep their books and bags! I missed the chance to click a selfie with the poet, though somehow I did manage to do a photo-shoot of his self.
The British have erected statues all through their country with small plaques describing the individuals, commemorating their history in a way that it has maximum reach. As a part of their mission to popularise history, almost every museum has some kids’ corner with various themed puzzles. Some of their castles and monuments also have audio-visual aids to interest school children and teach them about history. One of the best examples in this regard is the Warwick Castle where I found one of their smaller towers of the castle being used as an audio-visual theatre depicting the history of the castle and groups of school children with their teachers enjoying those shows.
Walking down from Chaucer’s statue, at a few minute’s distance I found The Canterbury Tales brought to life by an audio visual tour through his five tales. It was a nice experience to ‘see’ the tales that you otherwise read and that too right in the heart of the Canterbury. My thoughts went to my students; wish there was a way I could take back the live experience and share it with them as well.
But that was not all! Sauntering along the streets of that old town, I suddenly came across a tall tower, remnant perhaps of a church and happily spotted a plate on it that said, “Christopher Marlowe, dramatist, Baptised in this church 26th February 1564; Died at Deptford 30th May 1593.” Canterbury had given me much more than I had expected.
The British as a race have really perfected the art of preserving history – literary, social, political, and other. Such unexpected and innocuous placards kept popping up at all places and times. That is why, while walking down to the Tottenham court road tube station from the British museum, I was not caught completely unaware when I found another circular plaque in blue announcing “here lived Charles Kitteridge as related by Charles Dickens in the Sketches by Boz, the Bloomsbury christening” on the wall of an old building.
London, the city itself, brought to life so many associations with pages read years before that listing them all would run up to pages. The Globe, Tower of London, London Bridge, Westminster Abbey, and many such places unfolded before me a myriad of literary allusions. But one that could not be left unmentioned has to be the bard’s birthplace. Which bibliophile’s tour of London and its surroundings could exclude a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon? Everything there was a fairy-tale. As we disembarked the bus at that quaint town, I felt transported back in time. Entering the house where the great playwright had spent his childhood exhilarated my spirits further; I felt a religious awe stronger than I had ever felt in any place of worship. I was finally at what I always thought to be the Mecca for students of English literature. The guide there told us that the house did require renovation but they kept it to as minimal as possible. Imagine my wonder and happiness in looking at the sixteenth century toys with which little Will had played, the crib in which he had slept as an infant, the furnishing of the house and the entire atmosphere.
As I stepped out of the house, at one corner stood quietly the bust of our own Tagore and, in the garden, there was a group of young performers playing a scene from Romeo and Juliet. My love for this bard deeply resonated in the declaration of undying love from this pair of star-crossed lovers. I felt happy and strangely at peace with myself. And ready to fly home across the continents.
Das, Krishnabhabini. England-e-Bangamahila. Ed. Simonti Sen, Kolkata: Stree, 1996.
Sengupta, Nabanita. “A Bengali Lady in England: A Translation of Krishnabhabini Das” Englandey Bangamahila (With Introduction and Critical Notes). Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis, University of Calcutta, 2016.
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is assistant professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her areas of specialization are 19th century travel writings, women’s studies, translation studies, and disability studies. Some of her translated short stories have been published, the latest contribution being in the Anthology of Modern Bengali short stories published by the Sahitya Akademi. Her creative writings have also been published at various places like Muse India, NewsMinute.in, etc. She has also participated in various national and international seminars. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.