films in class

In the last few weeks of class, my professor showed two films focused on (you guessed it) London.

One was more focused on still shots and a narrative of a British man named Robinson, who struggles with the modernity of the City, and his friend, the narrator. This film, titled “London,” was directed by Patrick Keiller and features images from the later half of the 1900s. Robinson lives in Vauxhall which is apparently a district of London home to the gardens, a place for lavish entertainments and meetups. The entire attitude seems to be that London has been simultaneously rebuilt and suffocated by all the modernizations and renovations. At one point the voiceover calls London the “most unsociable place in Europe” for its shipwrecked communities and hard to access housing and businesses. This reality for Robinson convinces him to quit his passion of traveling all over the world because London is enough of an everyday trek to make him want to move “away from people and into solitude.” This undoubtedly is a very complicated view of the City.

The second film was “What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day?” which was made by Paul Kelly. The 2005 film “follows a young paperboy’s adventure across London’s last remaining wilderness in the Lea Valley on the eve of the Olympic development” (Saint Etienne quoted here). This film shows London a few decades later than the Keiller’s work, and it uses the approaching London Olympic games as a pressure on time. The argument here is that London is a hub of derelict spaces. In the shots of buildings, the street addresses, architecture and mailboxes lack uniformity and are painted on or barely hanging on in all different shapes and colors. The paradigm presented, that is of a modern city that is stuck in the past and uninhabited by many, shows a London that has stopped progressing. The question is: why?

Upon viewing both of these movies, I found the tone to be rather similar. Both “What Have You Done Today” and “London” portray London in a not-so-positive light with an emphasis on construction’s impact on the locals’ sense of belonging. For the newer film, even with the lack of organization within the architecture, the people still showed an intense pride in their city and country. Making room for the Olympics was a generally exciting ordeal because of the greater themes of sportsmanship and worldly cooperation the Olympics bring about. But not all were pleased about it. There were a few business owners who believed the Olympics would produce more unused space due to the high cost of living anywhere near such a prestigious property, and I don’t blame them. I suppose that conversation just brings up the complexity of building anything; in order to build something from the ground, the ground must first be cleared. It’s the principle of losing something to gain another. That goes for Keiller’s London, too, with its sometimes lost and always wanting character of Robinson. It’s as though Robinson is living multiple lifetimes within his own singular existence, and now the film gives us somewhat access into living his life, too. We inhabit his path. Through the use of these films and the visual entrance into London, it’s as though both directors are bringing people, the audience, back to the deserted London they know.


Charing Cross

“The old throughfare from Charing Cross to Westminster was in parts very narrow. At its northern end it was not much more than 30 feet across, but it widened out considerably opposite the site of the Banqueting House, where it surrounded an open grass space on which stood a Cross (the White Cross). From this point it probably narrowed gradually to the northern end of King Street, but on the building of Whitehall Palace a great portion of it was taken by Henry VIII, and the road was reduced to a width of 40 feet between the two gates erected by that monarch” (Survey of London)

The tapering and widening of this intersection shows the influence modernity had on the layout of the city. Narrower streets, such as the 30-foot one mentioned here, would be wide enough for solely foot traffic and horses, but they wouldn’t be able to handle larger method of travel like coaches, and later buses. Expanding the width of the streets would allow for faster traveling by stage coach, similar to the streetcar occurrence in Mrs. Dalloway, and forty feet would probably be just wide enough for two coaches to pass side by side. The width shows how heavily travelled a location was, so the streets partially determined which areas received attention from the public. Hence, expansion! This attention would matter for stores or bars or any other business establishments because if there was enough activity in that location, city officials might notice and expand the space. In a way, the amount people interact within a space determines the size, growth or reduction of that space. It’s interesting to think that the more space people take up, the more likely more space will be made to offer more space for more people. It seems like a progression of growth that parallels the progression of modernization.

Titchfield Street


“The parish of Titchfield, containing 4,826 acres, of which 45 are covered by water, is situated to the south-west of the county, about 2 miles from the Solent. There are 1,491 acres of arable land, 1,239 of pasture, and 811 of woodland… The River Meon forms the eastern limit of the town, and though now a small stream, was formerly a tidal harbour, for in the beginning of the seventeenth century Titchfield was a port” (Parishes).


It is interesting that the area of Titchfield even then was a place of meeting. There are multiple parallels I see between the historical functions of the Titchfield parish and the Titchfield Street De Quincey illustrates in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. As a port, it is a destination for travelers much the same way it was a destination for De Quincey and Ann. Ports bring in people from different parts of the world and invites and exchange of cultures like how De Quincey comes from a higher class and intermingles with Ann within the setting of Titchfield Street and the bustling city. Also, the rivers that surround the town seem to mimic the way the streets of Soho and Marlebone surround Titchfield Street and help move people along. This idea of the river as a means of motion and symbol of progression can be seen in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land” in which he says, “Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song. / The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers, / Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends, / Or other testimony of summer nights… / Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song ” (176-182). There is an irresistible pushing of time and force sourced in the rivers near London. Perhaps it is a commentary on the immortality of nature, as though nature never truly stops; it simply recreates and reroutes itself.


comparing authors’ perspectives

For the past couple weeks we’ve covered content from Charles Dickens, T.S. Eilot, and Virginia Woolf. With Dickens we read Oliver Twist and analyzed the discovery of an orphan boy’s true history and how it engages with class attitudes of agency or stagnation. With Woolf, we read Mrs. Dalloway and travelled a day through London in the minds of Clarissa, Septimus, and Peter. With Eliot, we of course read his famous poem The Waste Land with special attention paid to the cyclical and intersecting nature of life and death. Each of these propose a different perspective of London that I think derives from their personal identities and experiences with London.

Charles Dickens was born into a poorer class but was afforded a rare opportunity to become educated. After that, he began to rise in society after finding his way into journalism and writing. This background is relevant because it illustrates how Dickens understands the life of working class citizens so well. His view of London seems unsentimental yet necessarily attached, an attitude that comes across in his other books, too, like Hard Times. In the frame of this class, his background maintains a few parallels with Oliver’s life–young boy needing an education, learning about the world from his interactions with others, then discovering his calling in life. Drawing this connection is not unique to Oliver and Dickens, but it does simplify and characterize the angle Dickens views London.

Eliot’s approach feels closer to Dickens than to Woolf’s yet does not align too closely. Eliot is a bit of a hybrid of Woolf and Dickens with his narration style that combines the observant tone with the personal insights of the speaker. For instance, within the second section of the poem titled “A Game of Chess,” the passage reads: “When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said–I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself, HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart. He’ll want to know what you done with the money he gave you” (34-35). There are hints of Dickens’s storytelling style with theopinionatied narration but employs the freedom of poetry with the line “HURRY… TIME” while all vascillating between reality and the mind’s eye.

Woolf stays in the minds of the main characters mostly, though momentarily exploring time through the eyes of others as well, over the course of one day. Since the book is titled Mrs. Dalloway the focus is on Clarissa and how she perceives the space and people around her as she moves from her house, to the streets of London, into the shops, and then within her house once her dinner party commences. This attention on the female perspective is something commonly associated with Woolf, and probably would not prove as entertaining or insightful to read had Dickens wrote the novel.

I appreciate how I got a class critique and social observation of London through Dickens, an interrupted yet cohesive telling from Eliot, and a lady’s perspective from Woolf. It’s fascinating how the same city can function so differently yet still similarly for people from different backgrounds and social spheres.

Time According to an Opium-Eater

“Finally, as my despairing resource, on the day I left London, I put into the hands of the only person who (I was sure) must know Ann by sight… If she lived, doubtless we must have been sometimes in search of each other, at the very same moment, through the might labyrinths of London; perhaps even within a few feet of each other,–a barrier no wider, in a London street, often amounting in the end to a separation for eternity!” (page 47)

Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas De Quincey


Presented here is the conundrum between space and intimacy. De Quincey points out with great frustration how he can be within a few feet of the very person he seeks, but the overcrowded streets are too full. The density of the city does not result in De Quincey feeling more full of civic bustle or like a part of a cohesive body of populace. Instead, he feels isolated within a crowd of hundreds. The separation he feels is quite severe, as seen in his diction that he feels he will end in a “separation for eternity” because there are too many people and too little space for intimate friendships to form.

My professor had an interesting point in class today. In the paraphrased version in my memory, he said that this kind of crashing into each other is what is being critiqued by other writers in 18th century London, too. This new category of social interaction where you can meet one person and never see them ever again because they will be lost among the sea of faces is at play and at odds with the slower, older way of socializing. I can see this type in modern times, even on my school campus. It’s a strange thought to consider: the girl or guy I pass by on Bruinwalk I may never see again even though we attend the same school. The reality that dense populations result in a more difficult time in having intimate friendships seems paradoxical at first, but makes a lot of sense after some thought. At the very least, it is an unforeseen consequence of London modernization.


After looking at this map, it is interesting to apply the listed facts to the fictional settings in the readings from weeks one, two and three.

In Gay’s A Beggar’s Opera, Tyburn behaves as a center of chaotic life and sported death, wheras in William Hogarth’s prints, the execution site takes on a much more grim tone. For Macheath, always the performer, Tyburn is just another stage, and in Hogarth’s eyes, the location serves as a meeting place of social vivacity. It is interesting to see how in both, everyone is acutely aware of the imminent prescense of death yet lives even more animatedly when faced with it. People would gather and make the trek down Oxford Street to the Tree to sell goods, buy drinks, and participate in the spectacle of it all. How did this fascination with public execution come about? Perhaps the overt publication of the hangings is a violent resistence to the solemnity of the event, as in a sort of overcompensation. The people of London bring with them business and society even to the steps–or stage rather–of death. Another reading would be that the walk to Tyburn represents the degradation of human behavior to arrive at moral death. Macheath lies, steals, and cheats until he is caught by Peachum and then arrives eventually at Tyburn, and the public’s exchanges at the execution hub is far from civil. But what does that mean for those who make the return journey bakc into the city? Perhaps the commentary is that people carry death and ill morality back into the city after witnessing a low of humanity at Tyburn, almost as though they infect the city once returning to it and the process repeats over and over again.

James Boswell

“As I was coming home this night, I felt carnal inclinations raging though my frame. I determined to gratify them, I went to St. James’s Park, and like Sir John Brute, picked up a whore. For the first time did I engage in armor, which I found but a dull satisfaction. She who submitted to my lusty embraces was a young Shropshire girl, only seventeen, very well-looked, her name Elizabeth Parker. Poor being, she has a sad time of it!”

Friday 25 March. from James Boswell’s London Journal

Considering this account was the behavior of a gentleman, a modern reading of his promiscuous behavior in a public space feels problematic. The definition I have of a gentleman in this century is a man of working class or higher who is successful in his career, displays upheld morals and manners and can navigate a variety of social situations with ease. Roughly 200 years ago, though, the definitive gentleman would not be held to the same moral behavior as 21st century people. Hiring a prostitute, as depicted in this excerpt, would be normal behavior of men in the upper class since they can afford to spend the time and money, literally for pleasure.
I think what stood out to me as most strange was that this seemingly private affair occurs in a public space. There is no shame in his tone nor any attempt at skirting around the subject of prostitution. It is seen as a given that these women, these equally created human beings, exist to entertain his “carnal” desires and can be used in the plain view of others. His description of his basic desires as carnal, his treatment of Elizabeth as a means to an end, and her submission makes the encounter feel rather dehumanized when Boswell is supposed to be a higher member in society as a gentleman. His quick surrender to his own bodily desires partially subverts his elevated social status and proves he fundamentally is no better or enlightened than his sexual partner. Affairs in this London seems wholly paradoxical yet oddly still true.