Dull? London? Says who? What happened to the spirit of Dr Johnson, to the tired-of-London-tired-of-life, almost jingoistic belief that home was best?
Anyone who has read Paul Fussell’s brilliant Abroad: British Literary Traveling between the Wars, will know the answer. Nineteenth-century escapees, such as Browning, enthused in torrents over Italy or France but that did not mean they also felt the need to express a pitying scorn for home. The Victorians were positive like that. It was in the 20th century, self-loathing set in. With the likes of D.H. Lawrence.
It was Lawrence who wrote the text in the above photograph. Perhaps he had a reason to be contemptuous of England, the country whose Daily News had dismissed his Rainbow as a ‘monotonous wilderness of phallicism’. Perhaps he had been schooled by Byron, whose Venetian poem Beppo dismisses shy and square English girls: ‘The nursery still lisps out in all they utter—Besides, they always smell of bread and butter.’ E.M. Forster trumpeted this sentiment to the echo. England equals repressed. Italy, the continent, equals LIFE, LOVE, PASSION, FREEDOM, SELF-EXPRESSION.
It’s time for the 21st century to assert itself. London is far from dull. To get there, you pass a stony-eyed passport official (certainly not an inoffensive one) who feigns a friendly interest but her questions are pointed and personal. You’re on edge from the start. And the train? From Heathrow? Long and snaking, packed with bags and baggage, a veritable caravan, filled with a rainbow array of people all revealing trivial yet fascinating snippets of multifarious lives on their mobile phones. Coffee was offered by a small man wheeling a trolley. I could only begin to guess what country his ancestors came from. The station, when you get there, is big, madly busy, silently scurrying. Porters are non-existent; taxis are big and black and of a kind unique in the world, an adventure in themselves to travel in. The streets are crowded, yes; familiar but madly exotic, filled with the scents and sounds and accents of all the globe. And if your hotel is poky and dull and you feel your spirit being dulled—well, that is really your own fault.
D.H. Lawrence! thou shouldst be living at this hour. London has something to show thee… He probably wasn’t carrying Blue Guide London, 18th ed. 2014.