Dirty Old Town

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London is too clean.

How can I put this? London appears clean but is actually quite dirty.

But it is the wrong sort of dirt.

Allow me to explain…

When I was a small boy in Delhi, trussed up, in the strange way of things, in a paisley pinafore, I was taken in fortnightly intervals to see my great Aunt – the Dowager Rani Chandrakanta Shah Wab Beli Gunnasakeree – at her palatial but crumbling residence in the Safdarjung district of town. Now, the Dowager Chandrakanta had suffered much grief in her time, or so she professed (although admittedly she could be quite vague when pressed on details). Such was her virtue, however, that she refused to allow her appetite to wither, as it did with other women. Instead she publicly displayed her dedication to mourning by eating as much as possible.

All day long, delicacies were brought up to her on silver trays from the kitchen and markets and, with a moist eye and a moister mouth, she would pop them away, masticating in a profound sort of fashion. That great and selfless lady.

Anyway, this commitment to suffering had its price. Her once-ample figure (judging by the faded sepia photographs in her marbled albums, she never was what one might call, ‘svelte’) swelled to titanic proportions. She would sit on a cane couch on the first floor veranda that looked over the orchard and carp pond, contemplating her woe. A punkah wallah in white loin cloth would sit cross-legged at her feet, as skinny and brown as a stick of scorched ginger root, his large veiny hand drowsily pulling the cord of the fan in time with her munching. (Her demesne never knew electricity, or ‘elec-trickery’ as she referred to it in her occasional droll moments.)

This, invariably, is how I would find her. In fact, I cannot recall seeing her in any other place. Nor can I remember seeing her in any state approaching the ambulatory. Always on the selfsame sofa, and at the same angle. The couch was festooned with gaily coloured cushions, and linked to the swags of her sari; it was difficult to descry where one ended and the other began. To the wide eyes of my boyish imagination, it was “all her”. She began at the ground, vaulted heavily to the left, swept up with a protuberant flourish and then fluted round to meet armpit, shoulder, and by comparison, tiny head. She was my ‘Sofa Aunt’, otherwise known to no-one but myself as ‘Great Aunt Sofa’.

In this attitude I would be led to her by a shuffling servant in livery with a melancholy face. She would turn her head towards me like the slow rotation of a gun emplacement, and with effort, pat some area of her form to indicate that I should clamber aboard. This I did with the assistance of the lugubrious servant as the climb was as steep and treacherous to my small limbs as an ascent of the North face of the Eiger is to a mountaineer. Eventually I would find awkward purchase on some undulating ledge and she would motion for a book. For this was the purpose of the visit, for her to read and me to be read to.

“My dear child,” she would wheeze in my ear, “do you remember where we had got to?”

“Yes, dearest Aunt,” I would pipe, “it was where the grim convict Magwitch had descended on poor Pip unexpectedly and they were awaiting the arrival of his good friend Herbert Pocket.”

“Ah yes. Of course…”

For amongst the weighty Victorian novels she would keep to, it was invariably Dickens she would reach for. In this way, before my eighth birthday, I had already met with Pickwick and Tupman, Fagin, Sikes and Oliver, Copperfield, Micawber and Uriah Heap, Scrooge, Chuzzlewit and Little Nell. I had also formed a very distinct impression of London as being somewhere dark and labyrinthine, with Hackney carriages clattering over wet cobblestones, where dusty clerks were folded away in tottering terraces and villains lurked under archways. What piqued my imagination most, though, were the fogs that rolled in from the river and the innumerable spindly little coal fires that combined to create an atmosphere of glorious parblind gloom. It was nothing like my home town of bright and enervating Delhi, apart perhaps, from the liberal sprinklings of animal dung.

Now, I am not so hopelessly provincial as to imagine that London was still driven by the power of the horse, or to expect that top hats and frock coats were still en vogue. Delhi too had seen the introduction of the motor car and the dreary dilution of national dress. Still, London could not be London without the presence of its ‘pea soupers’ and the sputtering fires that warmed the hearth and heart. Sadly, my virginal visit came a number of years after the Clean Air Act of 1956 when the lighting of coal fires was forbidden within the city limits. I had timed my trip to occur in the usually dour month of November but I found the once great city bereft.

The dome of the sky was still carapaced in grey, as it had been from time immemorial (judging by the faces of the natives), but the chimney stacks, which had once coughed appreciatively in unison, now pointed nakedly and accusingly at Heaven. Without its cloak of invisibility the city skulked and squatted shamefacedly. Everywhere one looked the buildings were black with soot that no longer made any sense. Garbage lolled in the gutters, and worst of all, the pavements were a minefield of little oblong canine tokens (some not so little) which, if trodden upon, had the capacity to spread and multiply, like an outbreak of cholera. It was like a poor man convinced to do away without an old but handsome coat, revealing a decrepit body clustered with carbuncles and stained with tide marks. In the honest light of day, London was an ugly place.

Escaping indoors I fared little better. The unnatural effulgence of electric light glared from every bracket and lampshade, revealing wan dereliction or unapologetic crimes of style. Elsewhere the charms and extravagances of a bygone age, now considered old fashioned and redundant, were ripped out or covered over. The ubiquitous cast iron fire grate, which once threw its soft and dancing glow across a room, now gaped in dry-mouthed sadness, or too was cruelly pulled out and bricked up for some perceived misdemeanour. To warm themselves the rich installed the prosaic practicalities of central heating, the poor burnt their shins on five-bar electric heaters or wrestled with the vagaries of night storage ones.

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