July 12, 2024

The story of a street...my time on Southampton Row

The Guardian, which has been providing excellent coverage of the bombing attacks in London, has an interesting article on Upper Woburn Place, the street on which the #30 bus exploded last week. John Lanchester's Story of a street chronicles the exceptional history of a particular street as it winds from the BBC on The Strand to Hampstead in the north, undergoing a myriad of name changes and metamorphoses from smog-clogged to leafy park boulevard to posh High Street elegance:

No street in London changes its name as often in as short a space as the one which starts at the BBC's overseas broadasting centre Bush House, just around the corner from the Strand. The street begins, below a bad piece of sculpture by the American artist Malvina Hoffman depicting Anglo-American friendship, as the characterless, traffic-despoiled Kingsway. A couple of hundred metres later, at the perma-jammed crossroads with Holborn, it is reborn as Southampton Row. About two hundred metres ahead it becomes the pretty but horribly polluted Russell Square, then turns briefly into Woburn Place, then leafy Tavistock Square, then Upper Woburn Place, shortest-lived of its many names, for a scant hundred metres, before becoming grim Eversholt Street, then manic Camden High Street, then grimy Chalk Farm Road, before growing slowly posher as it climbs Haverstock Hill and becomes Rosslyn Hill and then Hamptstead High Street. Once you've noticed this, its hard not to be amused by it, and to take it as an example of the crowded specificity of London - a tribute to the city's sheer amount of history, of lives, of human density.

Unexceptional though, in the sense that there isn't a street in London that doesn't drip with history and meaning, almost as palpable as the black soot that clings to the parapets along Southamton Row. And while the street evolves, something of the past remains...

Iris Murdoch's great line, in her novel Under the Net, was that "some parts of London are necessary, others are contingent". This is still true, I think, with the proviso that the necessary and contingent parts of London can swap roles over time. (Who now would think that Mayfair was necessary?) And anyway, some of us prefer the contingent parts of London. The long street is one of them, full of history but at the same time scrappy-feeling and unplanned and random, and all the better, all the more characteristic of London, for that.
As a student in London, I spent a lot of time on Southamton Row, later Woburn Place, later Upper Woburn Place. Our school, IES, was up the street from Holborn tube station...the exhilaration and danger of that intersection shunting you north toward Euston with the messenger bikes playing chicken with your shins, the sandwich shops we learned to love or hate, our school, only a block from the British Museum. Further up the street, closer to where the #30 bus would disintegrate, spraying blood against the walls of the British Medical Association, was Russell Square, the old offices of T.S. Eliot, the post office where I sent my postcards stateside. It's the street that connected me to Euston Station, where I caught mainline trains to Preston in Lancashire to meet Damian, the street Mike and I would wander looking for new pubs to get drunk in. We'd sometimes stumble into Tavistock Square off the Russell Square tube station, which was an odd dystopic urban mall of shops and modernist apartments, a lacklustre backwater. I suppose my own memories of the street are pretty inconsequential, blending in with millions of other internal maps of an inconsequential street that can't even pick an identity for itself and stick with it, one more cross-section of a city that is impossible to examine. For a moment, it's become necessary again.

the man on the standup bike; gaviotas, columbia; photographs by bobby neel adams; www.stuffonmycat.com

Posted by jason at July 12, 2024 11:56 AM

Ok, that guy on that stupid standup bike just creeps me out man. He's everywhere! I used to work out on 77th & France in Edina - everyday during lunch, the guy would be standing on the corner looking as goofy as hell. It's hilairous. I think he's been ripped off again. 'Cuz i've seen the standup bike on the Today show one morning! ha!

Thanks Jason.


Posted by: Seb at July 13, 2024 11:44 AM
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