Although the title of this installments of ‘The Houses-Museums and their literary inhabitants. A personal tour ‘does not correspond exactly to what you will be able to read in the following lines, allow me this time the license because I believe that, after all, reviewing my personal tour through the streets of London and its numerous commemorative plaques make the British city in a kind of large open-air museum.
And it is that London has the wonderful regulation of installing a plaque on the facade of each building that has housed in its interior an illustrious person, both in literature, which is what interests us here, as well as in science, politics , from economics, research, history or philosophy. A fantastic initiative that I have nothing but to applaud.
The installation of these commemorative plaques began in 1866 by a project of the English historical heritage area, the first plaque placed on the exterior of a building being the one located at 24 Holles Street in Cavendish Square, a plaque placed outside the building where the poet Lord Byron was born, already known by the readers of these reports on House-museums. The building was demolished in 1889, so it appears that the oldest blue plaque in existence today is that of Napoleon III in Saint James, placed in 1867.
At present, nearly a thousand of these plaques adorn the facades of London buildings, inviting people from the city to discover what famous people resided, lived, were born or died on every street, on every corner or in each square. I don’t know about you, but that fascinates me, because, as I affirmed in the presentation of these reports, the people that recognize their own, magnify themselves as such. And the London people are well served for that.
But let’s begin this unique journey with the immense poet Silvia Plath (1932-1963), who, although of American origin, lived and died in the British city. To get to 25 Fitzroy Road in Primrose Hill, you have to cross Regent’s Park at the end of which is 221B Baker Street. I don’t know if they know, but a famous detective ‘resided’ there. Can you imagine which one?
A warm sun welcomed me the morning I took the subway trip to go to the house where the Boston poet lived her last days. I got off at Baker Street and started to cross the huge park (it houses a zoo inside, I will not tell you more) in the direction of Fitzroy road. The expectation filled me, eager as I was to get to the door of the house where Plath decided one sad February day in 1963 to lock herself in the kitchen leaving the gas in the oven on with her head inside.
And there was the house, the same one that housed the Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, long before Plath (seems to have been the reason why Plath chose this house). The blue plaque on the outside of the property reminds that Yeats lived there without making any reference to Plath (bad, very bad). I want to think that the reason is because Plath was not British by birth. I do not know, the truth. Now that yes, my pilgrimage to the building was not for Yeats, with all due respect to the author of The Pilgrimage of Oisin (1889), student of William Blake and Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923, but for his other resident. She will not be recognized on the plate, nor was she for many years in universal poetic and literary circles, but her work is located in my personal library as one of my greatest treasures and, of course, constitutes for me one of my mothers poetic. That is why I begin this journey with her and that is why I went to her last resting place because, although it is not on the famous plaques of the illustrious British citizens, for me it is one of the great poetry. And that, there is no plate that reflects it.
After paying my respects to the author of ‘Daddy’, I went the other way to see 221B Baker Street, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) located the home of one of the most famous detectives in history of Literature, the unique Sherlock Holmes. Yes, okay, I have not gone crazy: I know that it is a fictional character but that does not stop being famous. In fact, when Conan Doyle located the residence of the clever English detective on Baker Street, the street ended at number 85. In 1930 the route was widened and number 221 was assigned to a bank where, by the way, hundreds of letters arrived a month asking for advice and police intervention from the emblematic detective, so much so that in the end, in 1990, a museum dedicated to Holmes and his inseparable companion Dr. Watson was inaugurated. Elementary, dear reader.
Oh, what do you want me to tell you? But I love when fiction surpasses reality because in reality, I’m afraid, we are all very well served. And if not tell George Orwell. Who would have thought that we would live in a world so, so, so similar to the one he created in his most emblematic work, ‘1984’? But there is even a proposal to create a Ministry of Truth! Is it not to ask?
I remember it was a rainy day, one of those light but persistent ones that end up soaking you, when I approached the number 22 of Portobello road. I had left home without an umbrella and I had to pay for the naive recklessness (friend, you’re in London!) By stopping at one of the many small shops that give Portobello that unique Caribbean air, to buy an umbrella with which to mitigate the water that little by little was creeping through my jacket.
Just as the sky cleared, I found myself in front of a typical London two-story house, beautifully painted and perfectly maintained. The novelist and journalist George Orwell (1903-1950) lived there. I know it may seem silly, but I was thrilled to see the exterior of the house in which the author of ‘1984’ (1949) once resided. How not to get excited? Dystopian fiction freaks me out, I won’t deny it. Although I recognize that it can cause me fear, a lot of fear. And now you, I imagine, intuit why.
I’m almost sure that one of the smartest remedies to mitigate the effects of that dread is reading. And if there is a space dedicated to reading and books in the city Londoner that’s the British Library. Oh what a wonderful place! What treasures it keeps inside! Awesome. And it is that the national library of the United Kingdom has, to point out a datito of nothing, with about 150 million publications and to which another three million new objects are added annually between books, newspapers, scores, patents, manuscripts, maps… Nothing, a small thing.
In fact, the visit responded to my interest in knowing the permanent exhibition of part of those funds. In a reserved space, in which it was strictly forbidden to take a photo and with two security guards stalking any strange movement, several showcases with objects each more wonderful were spread before my astonished eyes: there were several handwritten notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci , crossed out sheet music by Handel, manuscripts by James Joyce and Jane Austen (Oh, my god) and, please, several of the songs of the legendary Liverpool group The Beatles, handwritten on the back of a mail envelope or in napkins. I could’nt believe it! But I almost cried when I saw it! Sorry, can I beatlemania.
Oh, by the way, it was also in the British Library, perfectly protected in their respective insulating glass cabinets, the famous Turing machine, designed by the English mathematician Alan Turing and a long-play with the voice of the Irish writer James Joyce narrating fragments of his novel ‘Ulysses’ (1922). Are not all of them true wonders? Ali-Babá’s Cave falls short next to the British Library.
And if we talk about treasures, what not to say about the British Museum? Of course, it is not a literary headquarters, but among its many treasures is the brand new Rosetta stone, which, after all, constitutes one of the oldest known vestiges of writing. Oh, how I liked seeing her. So extraordinary, so indecipherable for so long, almost as much as the spark generated by quality literary creation (ha, there I leave it).
Very close to the museum, is the meeting place of what was one of the most significant literary and intellectual groups of the early 20th century: the Bloomsbury Circle. At number 46 Gordon Square was the home of sisters Stephen, Vanessa and Virginia, in whose living room the germ of the aforementioned association of artists, writers and intellectuals was forged. It included, in addition to the immeasurable Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), author of one of the most decisive essays in feminist and feminist literature, ‘A Room of Our Own’ (1929), intellectuals of the stature of the mathematician John Maynard Keynes Bertrand Russell or Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Back on the streets, how can we forget the creator of the beloved child who did not want to grow up, ‘Peter Pan’, Sir James Matthew Barrei (1860-1937) and my dear Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller (1890-1976), better known as Agatha Christie , who, by the way, visited the islands of Tenerife (where an International Literary Festival is held in his honor) and Gran Canaria with his daughter and his personal secretary in the 30s of the last century. On the island of Gran Canaria he stayed at the Metropole hotel in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and visited the municipality of Agaete, where he set the story ‘The company lady’, included in his book of stories ‘Miss Marple and the thirteen problems’ (1933).
And of course, I have to mention the great novelist, the mythical author of ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897) and ‘The Wars of the Worlds’ (1898), HG Wells (1866-1946) or the author Arnold Bennet.
Yes, yes, I know: I am missing a lot of the leading authors in London who have plaques on the outside of their buildings. To make a more comprehensive review, I would have to conduct an essay study, which is not the objective of these reports. And, of course, it is not my intention to cover them all, I would rather.
Although I do anticipate that I have two of the most international British authors left: the famous Charles Dickens and the eternal William Shakespeare. To them I will dedicate the next two installments of ‘The Houses-museums and their literary inhabitants. A personal journey ‘. If you will allow me one piece of advice: don’t miss out.
Photos by Josefa Molina.