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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Lost in London

The recent visit of Dr. Donna Vinter, the esteemed director of our Grinnell-in-London program has me reminiscing about the wonderful experience of teaching GIL last fall. And thinking also about the problems I had getting around the city. London is one of the world’s most fabulous cities, historically, culturally and architecturally. Geometrically, on the other hand, the place is a nightmare.

It seems to me that many cities, towns and states have their own special brand of geography. Take Iowa, for example. There are certain geometric operations that the laws of our state will simply not allow, like driving your car in a northeasterly direction. All roads run east-to-west or north-to-south so driving northwest or southwest is pretty much out of the question. When I moved here 20 years ago, I found this quite annoying. “Jeez,” I would complain to my wife, “hasn’t anybody in this state ever heard of a hypotenuse?”

Then I spent last fall in London. If Iowa has ignored Pythagoras, so to speak, then London has paid no attention to Euclid. To borrow from Monty Python, there is obviously no Royal Society for Putting Things Parallel to Other Things. No two streets in London run in the same direction. Even straight lines are not straight lines as we conceive of them in America. A few blocks from my flat, for example, was a single stretch of pavement that ran pretty much as-the-crow-flies for about a mile and a half. Over that short distance it was variously called Everholt Street, Upper Woburn Place, Tavistock Square, Woburn Place, Russell Square and Southampton Row. As you travel along, these changes occur without warning, and happen for no apparent reason. Or, at least, for no reason that has been apparent since the 16th century.

Contrast this with, say, New York City. Bearing no historical obligation to Georgian kings or Medieval bishops NYC was free to name its streets after much more ordinary things—like integers, for example. Not possible in a place so dense with history as is the city of London. To turn “Russell St.” into “8th Ave.” would be to snub a duke who could have bought the whole of Manhattan for $24! Unthinkable.

But of course there are costs to indulging dead Dukes, and it is foreign visitors who often bear them. Consider: you’re in New York headed west on 25th St. and suddenly realize that you ought to be going east. What to do? Luckily, you are only one block from 24th Street which goes west, so just make the next turn. Should you turn right or left? Doesn’t matter; you are also one block from 26th Street, which goes east as well. On that street-with-six-names in my London neighborhood, however, it’s not nearly so simple. If you’re traveling the wrong way on the part called Russell Square, you can just take the next left onto. . .Russell Square, and then another left onto . . .Russell Square, before making the final left onto . . . Russell Square. In purely geometric terms this might make sense—it’s a “square” after all—but to me it felt like being trapped in orbit around some alien planet.

Now anyone who has been there will tell you that what I’m complaining about is precisely what makes London so fascinating. As it happened, my GIL course, for example, concerned “The City”, the most ancient part of London, now given over to banks and insurance companies. It is a labyrinth of interconnecting streets and alleys. But the most mundane if its thoroughfare is packed with significance. I wonder, for example, if the “occupiers” at St. Paul’s Cathedral realize that the original “Wall St.” is Change Alley—now literally an alley—a few blocks southeast of where they are camped.

After the great fire in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren wanted to transform The City into a grid, much like New York would one day become. Part of me wants to say, “Thank you, Sir Christopher, for trying to help an American who would be stumbling around town like Mr. Magoo two centuries in the future.” But another part of me is enormously glad he did not prevail. By definition, you’re always off the grid, if there simply is no grid. And whenever I was lost in London—which is to say, every day—I always discovered some new piece of history or culture I would have missed had I the slightest notion of where I was going. So I discovered new things pretty much all the time.

I love living in Iowa, but it’s hard to get lost in this state.

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