Visiting the Ghosts of Literary London

"Evelyn Waugh lived here"
“Evelyn Waugh lived here”

I had two days to whittle down my list of places to see in London: with just a week left for my return to India, I was never going to have enough time (or money) to see London at leisure. I wanted to visit the parts of London mentioned in books that I had read, and those that writers had frequented. But there were two major problems. I wasn’t going to be able to go back to my favourite books and look for London references, because there were just too many of them. Second, I didn’t know which of the ones I could think of still existed. I wouldn’t have been able to tell, for instance, if Wimpole Street from Mansfield Park was now given up to supermarkets and cinemas. So the next best thing I could think of was to look up lists of blue plaques devoted to writers who had lived or sojourned in London – and there I was, looking forward to seeing the city on foot, to be awestruck and inspired by all the men and women who had, directly or indirectly, played a part in making me proclaim very clearly that I wanted to be a writer when asked at twelve what my “ambition” was. (You are not really troubled by practical considerations at twelve – it is certainly a very comfortable age.)

On the first of these two days in hand, I went out on my own and managed woefully little “whittling down”: in one entire afternoon, I accomplished only Bloomsbury (home to Virginia Woolf and the rest of the set) and the British Library, before my friend Alex offered to show me Bunhill Fields cemetery, burial site of John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake among others. And I’m glad I had a guide: for I would never have suspected that the near-thicket in the midst of a bustling city was a cemetery. Across the road was John Wesley’s Methodist Church, unfortunately closed when we went, but we got a glimpse of the house where Wesley had lived, thus completing a very touristy box-checking activity.

I’ll take a minute here to acknowledge Alex’s contribution to my whimsical literary tour. On my off-days, I am absolutely incompetent with directions. To explain, earlier that week, I had decided to walk to the train station at Maidenhead, taken a wrong turn and ended up exactly where I’d started, much to the quiet amusement of the very sweet elderly lady who guided me to the bus stop. If not for much-suffering Alex, I would have ended up lost on the streets of London – which would have been fine if not for my crippling lack of time – and might have meekly asked a passer-by the way to the nearest Tube station, to return home defeated. With Alex around, I could rest assured, and I spent one of the most memorable afternoons of my life walking through the streets some very famous literary feet had trod, in the bargain also seeing some quaint houses belonging to ordinary people and prison walls (from the outside).

We met at Camden Town, intending to start with Chalcot Square, where Sylvia Plath had once lived. Her house was set in a nice, comfortable-looking square, quite a world away from the bohemian splendour of Camden’s flea markets, but I suppose Plath wasn’t exactly pleased with it because she didn’t live there very long. I had grown particularly interested in her after reading The Bell Jar earlier in the year, and was a little disappointed that she hadn’t found enough to interest her in the splendours of London. From there, we took a detour to Primrose Hill, not originally on our list, and I’m glad we did – it affords a spectacular view of London, showcasing a number of picture postcard buildings. Or, if you look at it another way, it is lovely to be on top of an English hill on a blue-sky day and whisper to yourself in awed tones that you’re actually in London. Alex told me it was a good place to go celebrity-hunting as well. I saw no celebrities but I did see a shiny red Ferrari – what more could I have asked for?

From Primrose Hill, we went down various streets, past a lovely church, then crossed a circus and finally ended up at another blue plaque in Hampstead Heath: this was where Katherine Mansfield had stayed on her visit to England. Further on was Vale of Health, a leafy residential area tucked away in a quiet corner, about as remote as convalescing people could possibly wish for. DH Lawrence and (surprise!) Rabindranath Tagore had once been here. There was something at once striking and inexplicable about it, but it looked like the perfect setting for some peaceful writing and thinking.

I wish I could tell you where we went next, but with my understanding of new roads being limited, I shall have to restrict myself to names of importance. We went into the lovely garden of the Spaniards Inn (Alex’s brainwave), a very old pub where Keats is believed to have composed his Ode to a Nightingale, and which in my more recent reading has appeared in Dracula as the place where Dr Van Helsing and Dr Seward catch a cab after trailing a vampire on the Heath. Don’t you just feel all smug and proud when you read a book and can immediately think of the place in question and say, “I know where that is!” I never got to do that very often before I saw London and Edinburgh, and I can say I’ve got my money’s worth out of my MA degree if only for the fact that it took me to England and allowed me to see the Yorkshire moors, London and Rob Roy’s haunts, and will hopefully allow me to relate better to future reading.

We had a long walk that afternoon, uphill and downhill, stumbling upon flights of steps that led into pretty, compact, silent streets hemmed in by mysterious-looking houses. We passed gorgeous houses with large grounds all to themselves, quite Victorian, but without a visible brooding hero. A sudden crest would expose us to another fantastic vista of London, the striking contours of the business district standing out in stark contrast to the quiet, unobtrusive houses of the residential area we were in. Admittedly, it does come as a slight shock when you find that a very prosaic-looking house was once lived in by Evelyn Waugh or R L Stevenson; but then, when you put people on a pedestal, you tend to forget that even the most talented of them are quite human and have to work to pay bills and rub shoulders with the rest of us.

It isn’t like I ever doubted the existence of Keats or Waugh, but seeing where they lived, in a way, helped make them more real and their work more personal. Seeing Kerouac’s handwritten scroll, for instance, brought On the Road alive. There may not be much in the atmosphere of today’s London to replicate a scene from Dickens or Conan Doyle. But even in the very touristy act of seeing houses and parks that have inspired loved writers is a kind of satisfaction, especially when you hadn’t thought in your wildest dreams that you would some day cross the ocean to their continent.


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