[ilds] THE BIOGRAPHY OF PLACE

slighcl slighcl at wfu.edu
Wed May 30 19:59:23 PDT 2007


*ARTEMIS COOPER TALK (26th September 2001)*
http://biographersclub.co.uk/talks/cooper.shtml
*THE BIOGRAPHY OF PLACE*

 Ladies and Gentlemen, I was mad to choose this subject, better suited 
to a PHd thesis. There are flaws in my argument, and by the end you may 
well say it has gone completely off the rails -- so I beg your 
indulgence in advance.

Now. Have you noticed, or is it just me? If you say 'a biography of 
Gladstone', you've merely defined a certain sort of book which could be 
good, bad or indifferent. If you say 'a biography of London', however, 
it immediately sounds rather intriguing: the 'bio' bit sounds instantly 
more alive, like those yogurts that are supposed to be so good for you.

But why call it that? Why not call it a history, social history, a guide 
book or a travel book? I think the answer lies in the fact that anything 
that might be described as a biography of a place approaches things from 
a different angle. By putting the city centre stage, the author can 
examine how the people passing through it have been affected by that 
city, and how the city has affected them. These are the two questions at 
the heart of any biography of place.

So the book will be part history, part descriptive, part guide, and 
something more besides - for what happens, when you begin to think about 
the interaction of people and place, is that place begins to take on 
personality. It's like putting together one of those mosaic images 
which, on inspection, turn out to be made of millions of tiny photographs.

Peter Ackroyd's book 'The Biography of London' deserves the definite 
article. The very scale of his work - 700 pages - is titanic. Still, 
it's not the sort of book that demands consecutive reading, because the 
chapters are short and can be dipped into at random. This could be very 
bitty, but it isn't for at least three reasons. First is the author's 
voice, which is clear with the authority of one who not only lives and 
breathes London, but has read almost every book on it that was ever 
written. Second, the book has ( and I would say this is an essential to 
any biography of place) a grounded quality. He has walked every inch of 
the city, and knows it well enough to devote chapters to its light, its 
fog, its noise. There are also there arc innumerable vignettes of the 
individual lives of Londoners - the miniature photographs, as it were, 
that make up the portrait. Most interesting of all is his conviction 
that London carries it's past in its stones.

It's a very different approach to that of Christopher Hibbert, whose 
Biography of London (the first of four city biographies he was to write, 
incidentally) came out in 1969. In the foreword, Hibbert says that his 
book is 'intended as an introduction to the development of London and of 
the social life of its people.' So his description of the slums of St 
Giles, which were known as The Rookeries, is what one might expect. He 
describes the hideous gin-alleys, where 'the bodies of the incapably 
drunk could be seen lying where they had fallen, by day as by night, in 
Bethnal Green and Spittalfields.. .and particularly in St Giles.. .which 
Hogarth chose for the scene of his admonitory picture.' He then goes on 
to say that the Rookery was cleared in the 19* century, by driving New 
Oxford St straight through the worst of it -just as Victoria Street cut 
through 'acres of slums west of the Abbey towards Victoria Station.'

Contrast this with Ackroyd on the same subject:

'The area around St Giles was, in the language of the period, a sore or 
abscess that might poison the whole body politic, with the unspoken 
assumption that it must be in some way purged or cauterised. So.. .a 
great thoroughfare known as New Oxford Street was run through it, 
leading to wholesale demolition of the worst lanes and courts with an 
attendant exodus of the poor inhabitants - although most of them moved 
only a few streets further south.. .It was a damp, dismal and 'noisome' 
place, to which few new residents could be attracted. And so its stands 
today. New Oxford Street is one of the least interesting thoroughfares 
in London, with no character except the dubious one of being dominated 
by the high rise block of Centrepoint. The building towers above the 
site of the old cage and gallows, and may perhaps be considered a 
fitting successor to them. It is an area now without character or 
purpose, the home of computer suppliers, an Argos superstore, some 
undistinguished office buildings... There are still vagrants lingering 
in the recesses of the area as a token of its past, but where there was 
once life and suffering there is now only a dismal quiet from which St 
Giles himself can offer no deliverance.'

That line about Centrepoint, towering above the site of the old cage and 
gallows: he never actually says that perhaps that's why it's such a 
gloomy place, but what's implicit is that the past, even when destroyed, 
still has a subtle ability to mould and influence the present.

Each biography of place will create a relationship with the past, and 
each has to be created afresh in the mind of the author - because towns 
and landscapes, and the societies that created them, grow beyond the 
span of one human life.

However the writer creates that sense of the past, with it goes a sense 
of impermanence and flux. Everything is constantly shifting, whether 
it's a landscape or a village or a city, is another hallmark of 
biographies of place. It's deep in the bones of Flora Thompson's Lark 
Rise, a description of village life in the depths of Oxfordshire at the 
turn of the century.

'There had been a time, it appeared, when lace making was a regular 
industry in the hamlet. Queenie, in her childhood, had been 'brought up to

the pillow', sitting among the women at eight years old and learning to 
fling her bobbins with the best of them...

Now, of course, things were different. She didn't know what the world 
was coming to. This nasty machine-made stuff had killed the lace-making; 
the dealer had not been to the Fair for the last ten years... said they 
liked the Nottingham stuff better; it was wider and had more pattern to 
it! She still did a bit to keep her hand in. One or two old ladies still 
used it to trim their shifts, and it was handy to give as presents..but, 
as for living by it, those days were over.'

Flora Thompson was acutely aware that those days were over: Lark Rise 
described the rural world of her childhood, and by the time it was 
published in 1939, she was in her sixties. She was describing a world on 
the brink of unimaginable change and upheaval, but - as the passage I've 
just quoted shows - she was also recording what had already passed, 
liven in the passages where she describes things that have scarcely 
altered in centuries, you can hear Time's Wing'ed Charriot not far off.

'Next came the rectory, so buried in orchards and shrubberies that only 
the chimney stacks were visible from the road; then the old Tudor 
farmhouse, with its mullioned windows and reputed dungeon. These, with 
the school and about a dozen cottages, made up the village. Even these 
few r buildings were strung out across the roadside, so few and far 
between and so sunken in greenery that there seemed no village at ail.'

So far, I've talked about some of the characteristics of writing 
biographies of place. Now, to some of the problems - and these are 
largely to do with structure. If you write the biography of a person, 
you have an instantly identifiable line to follow: a person is born, 
lives, and dies - and no matter how much the author deviates or 
rearranges this basic chronology, it can't be ignored.

The biography of a place gives far greater freedom. If you are writing 
about, Cairo, you can go anywhere in the city that interests you: the 
palace, the red light district, the city of the dead, the barracks, the 
slums - places you might never visit if you were there in person. So the 
material you collect, from hundreds of different sources, is radial 
rather than linear. The obvious solution to the problem of structure is 
that the material must be organised thematically, but that's not the 
whole answer.

To come back to the analogy of the image made up of photographs: If your 
structure was purely thematic, you wouldn't have an image just a set of 
patches sorted into different colours, which isn't good enough. Only a 
time-line or a story will give you the drive that every book needs, and 
even when you've found one, you still have to pull your mass of material 
into shape. Structure is, without a doubt, the thorniest problem for 
anyone attempting this sort of writing.

On the plus side, you will be able to evade the language of conventional 
biography, that slips so easily into old ruts: you'll never find 
yourself writing sentences like 'The following summer found Smith back 
with the Fothergills in the Lake District,' or 'The publication of 
Smith's memoirs in October proved the ideal opportunity for settling old 
scores'.

One of the curious things I've discovered in thinking about the 
biography of place, is how often the most successful examples of this 
genre have been written by novelists. I've talked about Peter Ackroyd; 
but think too of Elizabeth Bowen's book Bowen 's Court, about her 
family's house in Ireland; or Penelope Lively, who has just brought out 
a book called The House Unlocked, the still centre of which is her 
grandmother's house in Somerset. Or, one of the best biographies of 
place ever written, EM Forster's History and Guide to Alexandria.

This was published in Alexandria in 1922, before biography of place had 
been thought about, and in fact he hardly describes the modern city at 
all: that is merely a grid, a map, through which the reader can put 
himself in touch with the past. Lawrence Durrell described it as 'a 
small work of art, for it contains some of Forster's best prose, as well 
as felicities of touch such as only a novelist of major talent could 
command.'

 Not many biographies of place include a history of the mind that 
produced it; but this is what Forster does, cutting through what must be 
volumes of the driest theology to come up with passages like this:

'That old dilemma, that God ought at the same time to be far away and 
close at hand...[can only occur] to those who require God to be loving 
as well as powerful; and it is the weakness and the strength of 
Alexandria to have solved it by the conception of a link. Her weakness: 
because she had always to be shifting the link up and down - if she got 
it too near God it was too far from man, and vice versa. Her strength: 
because she did cling to the idea of Love; and much philosophical 
absurdity, much theological aridity, must be pardoned to those who 
maintain that the best thing on earth is likely to be the best in heaven.'

Forster's Guide is not an easy book to get into; but, as Durrell 
observes, 'once the first sense of estrangement is over, the mind finds 
its surcease in the discovery of the dream-city of Alexandria which 
underpins, underlays the rather commonplace little Mediterranean seaport 
which it seems, to the uninitiated, to be.'

Forster's book, and the poems of Constantine Cavafy, were to become the 
sources for Durrell's novel, the Alexandria Quartet. This is, I think we 
would all agree, a novel. I hope you would also agree that it is also 
one of those novels in which the setting is so essential to the action 
that it takes on the importance of a central character. And this book 
has done what novels do sometimes do - especially very successful ones 
that reach a wide audience and become classics: The Alexandria Quartet 
has grafted itself onto Alexandria, and irrevocably changed the way 
people think about it.

I began to realise this when 1 lived in Alexandria doing VSO in the 
mid-1970s. The people I met were very hospitable and enjoyed showing me 
round the beaches, cafes, restaurants and sports clubs which they took 
to be the highlights of their city. And on these jaunts one of them was 
bound to say 'You see, it's nothing like Durrell's books, is it?'

I soon worked out that this was a way of saying, 'it's not all sexual 
depravity and child brothels', but there was something else, too: a 
resentment that Durrell's novel had somehow pickled them all in that 
crumbling city he created, with its ghosts, its secrets, its suffocating 
history and seedy glamour. You have only to read the local guide-books, 
especially the French ones, to see how much sub-Durrellian prose there 
is still sloshing about.

This, I realise, has taken us rather a long way from the biography of 
place; but in so far as the biography of place is inevitably selective 
and subjective, novels like this do form part of the equation. Ackroyd 
describes 'Bleak House' as 'a symbolic restatement of London vision', 
and in the same manner, that novel has shaped the way we see London - 
particularly that opening sequence with the fog of London hanging low 
over the Thames, seeping into the crannies of the Inns of Chancery, and 
round the great mountains of paper that make up the case of Jarndyce v. 
Jarndyce.

No biography of London would be complete without several references to 
Dickens in the index, nor would a biography of Alexandria be complete 
without mentioning Lawrence Durrell.

So am I trying to say that biographies of place should be written by 
novelists? No, I would not dream of supporting such a heresy in this 
company. But I would suggest that this sort of biography requires some 
of the skills of a novelist. It requires a touch that is not too 
obsessed with accuracy, and not afraid to impose a creative imagination 
on the tangible and factual. As Plotinus once remarked, 'to any vision 
must be brought an eye adapted to what is to be seen.'

 

the biographers club © copyright 2005

-- 
**********************
Charles L. Sligh
Department of English
Wake Forest University
slighcl at wfu.edu
**********************

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