History out my window
Our flat in London was a good place to write history. Well, in some ways it was a good place to write history. In some ways it was not.
Jackhammers in the building next door. Not good for history.
Crappy building maintenance that causes a massive leak over computer, books, and notes. Also not good.
A great selection of relatively decently priced scotch at the grocery store. (A brief aside for all my American exceptionalist friends. You claim that we are the land of the free, but some of the most proudly patriotic states are those that restrict the sale of spirits or—even worse!—require they be sold by state-run enterprises. If they had known about the distinct paths ahead, some of the Founding Fathers might have chosen the King over such tyranny. Just sayin’.) But I digress. Happy historians are productive historians.
Of course, historians with a deadline are perhaps even more productive, and I had one of those in London as well.
But there was also inspiration in London.
Our flat was about a three-minute walk from the home of Edward Gibbon of Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire fame. I should say the former home of Edward Gibbon, because he is, well, er, history. Pretty cool to be able to take Lil’ Historian out for a walk and point out Gibbon’s house. (Fun fact: James Smithson of Smithsonian Institution fame lived two doors down.)
But there was also inspiration simply looking out the window of my office. I could see history, even as I was writing. Take a look yourself.
At first glance, it seems to be quintessentially London. Moss, rain, brick, tile, chimneys. Check, check, check, check, and check.
But on closer inspection, you can also see the economics and social structures of the 1760s when the neighborhood (and the building that we lived in) was laid down.
Though not all that far from the heart of Westminster (less than a 30-minute walk to Whitehall) the area went undeveloped for so long because much of Marylebone was held as a deer park, hunting preserve, and pastoral rental property for various kings, queens, dukes, and earls for several centuries. But in the middle of the 18th-century money was flooding into Great Britain, much of it coming from the sugar islands of the West Indies. There was great demand for “fashionable” homes, and so off went the farming tenants. In their place, Lady Henrietta Cavendish Holles and the Earl of Portland started developing the land on a regular rectangular grid that matched the spirit of rationality and order prized during the height of the Enlightenment. Thus, we can see both economic and intellectual history manifest in the placement and ordering of some large masses of brick.
But there are also traces of social history visible. This photograph is looking out of the back of the house into the center of the square that was originally formed by an exterior of elegant townhomes. So elegant that the owners did not spend the money to make the backsides equally elegant; hence, the rather patchwork vista of unadorned brick. Around the perimeter was nothing but the best of Georgian urban architecture. Thus, we can also see economic and cultural history: a rising country that placed a preimum on appearance and so was already living a bit beyond its means.
The low-slung buildings in the center of the square are even more interesting. Along the left side of the interior lane, you see the old carriage houses. Along the right side, the old stables. Our flat on the fourth and fifth floors, it should be noted, was the old servants’ quarters. The beautiful cantilevered grand staircase came to its end a floor below. To access our home, one had to ascend a narrow, winding, uneven set of stairs that was difficult enough for an adult with the benefit of full lighting (no lift 'ere, luv.) On those mornings that I was foolish enough to attempt it without turning on the light or when burdened with suitcase, groceries, or really about anything larger than a Cornish pasty, I often came close to a gruesome but likely quite funny in a Mr. Bean sort-of-way death. Upon thinking of it, I guess that death is also bad for history. Well, the historian’s death. Let’s face it, other peoples; deaths are great for selling history.
But to return to the view, in looking down at the old homes of the drivers, footmen, and grooms from the old quarters of the maids on top of the grand but not quite as grand as they appeared homes of the gentlemen and ladies, I was seeing the class structure of Georgian England manifested in stone, as well as the flow of money from the empire, the flow of people—both the rich and those who served them—and the relations among those people set out in brick.
Even more marvelously, new patterns of economics and class have wound their way into the old shells left by the old patterns. The stables are now part of Queen’s College, a posh secondary school at which the kids are dropped off and picked up by drivers in Rolls Royces. The “mews” homes in the center are all worth well over a million; they now have Land Rovers and Astin Martins parked outside rather than gigs and phaetons. I heard Russian wafting up from the center one day while the window was open. Another new flow of money to replace the old. The townhomes are now mainly health centers of various sorts, many plastic surgery, that cater to rich out-of-towners. Many appeared to be Gulf Arabs. Late at night we could also hear the sounds of madly revving Lamborghinis, Maseratis, and Porches as the same group reputedly took advantage of Harley Street—one of the longest stretches of straight lightly traveled roads in central London. The crane on the far side is proof that the money continues to roll in. The sources of wealth have changed, but it still converges on the same place and for reasons that would not be all that foreign to the Georgians, even if the human vessels would be.
So there, as I looked out my window in the act of writing (or trying to write) history, it was spread before me.