After a sleepless night over the Atlantic, re-re-reading Bleak House and intermittently watching the plane’s progress on the seat-back screen, I got my first-ever sight of England’s green and pleasant land below me — the predictable fields, hedgerows and white farmhouses, on which the predictable rain was falling.
I’m a literary Anglophile but I’d never set foot here, in part just to keep my imagined England — streets gaslit and cobblestoned, cabs horse-drawn — uncontaminated. But when my UK publisher put out my new book, reissued my first novel, and offered to fly me over for readings and interviews (expenses paid? Twist my arm) I agreed to go and take a gander at my spiritual homeland, for whatever such a gander might be worth.
In the taxi to my hotel in Holborn, I recalled — naturally — the primordial mud and fog at the beginning of Bleak House. “ . . . It would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill.” I’d pictured Holborn Hill as, you know, a hill; I didn’t even see an incline that would have made a megalosaurus break a sweat. The hotel lobby was infested with laptopping hipsters bathing in electro-whomp music, and when the elevator opened on to my floor, I found an ironic 1950s-vintage TV (the kind my family used to have), on which sat an ironic Brownie box camera (the kind my family used to have) and — honest — a quaint antique copy of Bleak House.
Was this some scary telepathic hoodoo? How could this display not be aimed at me, personally? OK, calm down. Maybe the hoteliers didn’t read your thoughts — maybe they’d simply read Bleak House and put the book there because this place was right around the corner from what Dickens calls “the very heart of the fog” — that is, the metaphorical fog issuing from the Court of Chancery, corrupting and polluting not only England’s body politic but . . . Ah, just go do your bookstore gig, pops. Then get some sleep.
Two interviews today, each with a bright, well-read literary journalist who induced me to talk my foolish head off, not that this takes much inducing, though I didn’t speculate about the hotel people reading my thoughts. Then to a pub. Met more literary folk, drank gin, agreed to house-swaps (my place in Montana for a place in London and then a place in Ireland) and invited Stuart Evers and his wife Lisa — Stuart did the gig with me last night and wrote a fine introduction to my reissued novel — to come visit me under the Big Sky. I was as bluff and welcoming (and loud) as good old roaring Mr Boythorn. You know, in Bleak House.
But God, this morning in the mirror I looked like Krook (the old gin-poisoned junk collector in Bleak House who spontaneously combusts into grease and charcoal), rather than like a distinguished writer of a certain age — Norman Rush, say. In a hair salon on Fleet Street I got my hair cut and my beard trimmed, then set out to do some tabula rasa tourism: on foot, no map, no smartphone. I mistook Whitehall and the Ministry of Defence for the Houses of Parliament — the former, more ornate and august, I figured was the House of Lords, while the latter, drab by contrast, had to be the House of Commons. At noon I found myself just underneath what was definitely Big Ben, in a crush of tourists shooting video of the thing going “bong” 12 times. Samuel Johnson — whose house I’d stumbled upon after getting that haircut and toured for a tenth of the price — said the full tide of human existence was at Charing Cross, but today it was right here, near what turned out to be the real Houses of Parliament.
I spotted a sign pointing to Westminster Abbey — my big chance to visit Dickens’ bones. But on this sunny day all I really cared to see — to the extent I cared to see that — was the heart of the fog, “hard by Temple Bar”. Obviously, the area had changed in 160-odd years — the reconstruction of Temple Bar, for one thing, and no more Court of Chancery — and the images Dickens had put in my head were surely more powerful than the sight of whatever was left of Chancery Lane, Cook’s Court, Bell Yard and Lincoln’s Inn. Those stately old houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, residence of the powerful, malignant lawyer Mr Tulkinghorn, still looked stately, while Bell Yard, shabby abode of the sheriff’s officer Neckett (aka “Coavinses”), seemed to have come up in the world. Number 15 Took’s Court (some Dickens scholar must know why he called it “Cook’s”), was no longer the shop of the scared-rabbit stationer Snagsby.
But of course it never was. The real-world stage-set, what remained of it, for such realer-than-real inventions as Snagsby, Tulkinghorn, Neckett, Krook and his down-and-out tenants Miss Flite and “Nemo” (aka Captain Hawdon), impressed me as little as I’d hoped.
Except for this: it had never struck me that all these people — you’d swear they were people — lived within a couple of minutes’ walk of each other. Neighbours! I knew that Bleak House was about hidden connections and hidden contagions (hey, it’s hard to fool the old man) but walking those few streets, as Dickens must have again and again, gave me a clearer, more immediate sense of the novel’s creepy, claustrophobic intimacy, and I heard a little louder its not-so-hidden insistence that we’re all neighbours and ought to do better at it. Was this five-second shiver of insight worth God knows how much in airfare and hotel bills? Well, the money didn’t come out of my pocket. But yes.
David Gates is author of ‘A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me’ (Serpent’s Tail)
Illustration by Dan Mitchell