24 July 2011

A Perfect Departure

Having babbled about London the other day, I was reminded of one of my favourite passages describing the city, penned, aptly enough, by the great Patrick Leigh Fermor, who I've quoted here once upon a time. It describes his departure from London on the rainy night of 9 December 1933, as he set off on his great journey to Istanbul, where, I presume, at least seventeen people tried to persuade him to buy a carpet.
'"A splendid afternoon to set out!", said one of the friends who was seeing me off, peering at the rain and rolling up the window.

The other two agreed. Sheltering under the Curzon Street arch of Shepherd Market, we had found a taxi at last. In Half Moon Street, all collars were up. A thousand glistening umbrellas were tilted over a thousand bowler hats in Picadilly; the Jermyn Street shops, distorted by streaming water, had become a submarine arcade; and the clubmen of Pall Mall, with china tea and anchovy toast in mind, were scuttling for sanctuary up the steps of their clubs. Blown askew, the Trafalgar Square fountains twirled like mops, and our taxi, delayed by a horde of Charing Cross commuters reeling and stampeding under a cloudburst, crept into The Strand. The vehicle threaded its way through a flux of traffic. We splashed up Ludgate Hill and the dome of St. Paul's sank deeper in its pillared shoulders. The tyres slewed away from the drowning cathedral and a minute later the silhouette of The Monument, descried through veils of rain, seemed so convincingly liquefied out of the perpendicular that the tilting thoroughfare might have been forty fathoms down. The driver, as he swerved wetly into Upper Thames Street, leaned back and said: "Nice weather for young ducks."

A smell of fish was there for a moment, then gone. Enjoining haste, the bells of St. Magnus the Martyr and St. Dunstans-in-the-East were tolling the hour; then sheets of water were rising from our front wheels as the taxi floundered on between The Mint and the Tower of London. Dark complexes of battlements and tree-tops and turrets dimly assembled on one side; then, straight ahead, the pinnacles and the metal parabolas of Tower Bridge were looming. We halted on the bridge just short of the first barbican and the driver indicated the flight of stone steps that descended to Irongate Wharf. We were down them in a moment; and beyond the cobbles and the bollards, with the Dutch tricolour beating damply from her poop and a ragged fan of smoke streaming over the river, the Stadthouder Willem rode at anchor. At the end of lengthening fathoms of chain, the swirling tide had lifted her with a sigh almost level with the flagstones: gleaming in the rain, and with full steam-up for departure, she floated in a mewing circus of gulls. Haste and the weather cut short our farewells and our embraces and I spend down the gangway clutching my rucksack and my stick while the others dashed back to the steps -- four sodden trouser-legs and two high heels skipping across the puddles -- and up them to the waiting taxi; and half a minute later there they were, high overhead on the ballustrade of the bridge, craning and waving from the cast-iron quatrefoils. To shiled her hair from the rain, the high-heel-wearer had a mackintosh over her head like a coalheaver. I was signalling frantically back as the hawsers were cast loose and the gangplank shipped. Then they were gone. The anchor-chain clattered through the ports and the vessel turned into the current with a wail of her siren. How strange it seemed, as I took shelter in the little saloon -- feeling, suddenly, forlorn; but only for a moment -- to be setting off from the heart of London! No beetling cliffs, no Arnoldian crash of pebbles. I might have been leaving for Richmond, or for a supper of shrimps and whitebait at Gravesend, instead of Byzantium.'
Perfect, isn't it? That's how A Time of Gifts begins, and it always strikes me as the kind of prose you could throw at young writers of English as a case study in how the language can be played in the hands of a master. I tend to forget, oddly enough, that the tale begins at Shepherd Market, which is one of those spots which has grown to mean a lot to me over the years, which is good going given how Mayfair was once wholly unknown to me. Now, though, it's a key point in my personal map of London's topography, forever linked with quite a few friends, one of whom, sadly, I'll never see again. It's not just me who's the poorer for that.


Jeannette said...

Such a juxtaposition to flow from the descriptive narrative to the voice of the taxi driver with his common truism "Nice weather for young ducks."

Thank you for introducing this.

Anonymous said...

You were saying that "it always strikes me as the kind of prose you could throw at young writers of English as a case study in how the language can be played in the hands of a master". You are exactly right. You'll be pleased to know that Edexcel adapted this extract in their International GCSE exam (English Language specification A) for May 2013. I don't think they're available online yet, but I know this because I took this exam (and only got a miserable A because my teacher was so appalling). It is a very exam-friendly text!