The very first thing I picked out to read, on the subway on the way home from Mom’s, as a little light reading, was Chapter 9 from John Summerson’s 1946 classic Georgian London, headed “Fall ’87 History I PN703A Gardner.” Just back from my winter in London and classes at the Architectural Association in beautiful Bedford Square, I think I was especially interested in this book. In fact, had I perhaps read it while in London? I can’t recall. (See why I need evidence, documentation?) Here’s a passage from this chapter, in which Summerson discusses the results of the 1774 Building Act’s categorization and rulemaking on the housing types of Georgian London.
“[T]he real importance of this system was not so much that it facilitated the enforcement of a structural code but that it confirmed a degree of standardization in speculative building. This was inevitable; for the limitation of size and value set out in the rating tended to create optimum types from which there was no escape and within which very little variation was possible. Especially did the second, third, and fourth rates of houses tend to become stereotyped. This was, in many ways, an excellent thing: it gave some degree of order and dignity to the later suburbs and incidentally laid down minimum standards for working-class urban housing which would have been decent if they had been accompanied by legislation against overcrowding.
“On the other hand, the Act contributed largely to what the later Georgians and early Victorians conceived to be the inexpressible monotony of the typical London street, a monotony which certainly must, at one time, have been overpowering and which can still be felt in the lonelier tracts of Islington and, to a really distressing degree, in a more or less intact Georgian capital like Dublin.
“For not only did the Act tend to create standard types of houses, it saw to it that the London house should not adorn itself with any but the most exiguous and reticent kinds of ornament. All woodwork (the cheapest and most tractable material was banished, except in so far as it was necessary for shop-fronts and door-cases.”
It’s so good, this book, so intelligently and rhythmically written. “Any but the most exiguous and reticent kinds of ornament” — and he’s not showing off, these are exactly the right words. Also, in reading about the orderly monotony of the Georgian street I must (I suppose) have thought, too, of all those later London terraces among which I had lived, and perhaps also of Wharton’s famous phrase in The Age of Innocence on the row houses of early 19C Manhattan, “the brownstone of which the uniform hue coated New York like a cold chocolate sauce.” The packet also contained more chapters, which I’ve now read with equal or greater pleasure. But this particular stapled section, when I turned over the last page, revealed something else, something in red pen, in my handwriting.
“Quiet, quiet. Don’t say a word. Don’t even twitch. Silence.
Inviolate. Shut up. Distressed. Don’t even mumble, Absolute silence.
Bland, blank silence. Never even open your mouth, just breathe.
Button your lip. Be quiet, Shut your mouth. Not a squeak
Blessed silence, Not possible to have a discussion, You won’t hear
anything else from me. Not a twig shall crack. Why should I reform
these people’s stupidity if they can’t debate? No, I’m being, mean, I’m
the one who can’t or won’t debate. I’m sulky because I’m badnatured
& have made a fool of myself.
“‘Think of good Lord Nelson & avoid self-abuse.'”
Which scares me a little; does it scare you? Of course I have no memory of the event; what happened in that seminar, how angry and how lowered I felt. I have certainly written similar things, if more briefly, since then — on the back of some of my Streetsingers’ music, for one thing. (The Lord Nelson thing is from a naughtily prurient ballad parody by Lawrence Durrell. Yes, of course he had in mind a different kind of self-abuse. My father liked this poem; make of that what you will.)