By Adam Katz
Yeah. I’m not in London anymore. I’m not even in England anymore. But I’m still writing these because there are aspects of my trip I look back on, even at the remove of only a few days, with a warm sense of delight and tranquility and joy. And there are parts I am haunted by. One of the things I noticed right away is how similar London is to New York (except that London has a better mass-transit system; thank you Robert Moses for bollocksing that up for us). Everywhere I went, it felt like I was looking at a version of a New York neighborhood or park (more likely it’s the other way around). Part of the reason is that the two cities have interacted a lot over the course of some four centuries. And part of the reason is that we share a language, easing communication and the exchange of ideas even further. And part of the reason is that newer cities just tend to resemble each other, no matter where they are. London, thanks to a certain fire in 1666, is a newer city. But a big part of the reason why London and New York resemble each other is that they are two centers of Empire and, as such, their physical plant is naturally going to reflect their similar priorities. Why am I thinking about this? That’s the magic—and the privilege—of visiting a foreign city. You can see things in a strange city that you can’t see in your home.
I know people don’t read travelogues for detailed meditations on the history of imperialist exploitation. Most people, anyway. So. Ok. I’ll make you a deal. If you stick with me to the end, I’ll tell you about some sweet moments from the last few days Anuja and I spent together.
An example of something I saw in a new light in London, but that I’d taken for granted in New York, is the ethnic diversity. I grew up being proud of the fact that New York was the most diverse city in the world. In the last few years I was contemplating moving to India and one of the things that bothered me about living in an Indian city is that, although there is diversity from within the subcontinent (in one city-block, nay, at one dinner-table in Bombay, you might hear native Telugu speakers from the South and native Urdu speakers from the north) there are few visitors, and fewer still transplants from around the world the way you would find in New York. It wasn’t exactly a downside; it was just something I was going to have to take in and get used to. I am still glad I live in (or even next to) a city where bilingual street-signs are the norm rather than the exception—Korean on one block, Chinese on the next, Russian the one after, and so on. But I see the darker side as well. These people didn’t come to this city to make my life richer and more multi-cultural. For that matter the first of my own ancestors didn’t come here for anyone else’s benefit. Immigrants come to New York, no less than to London, to escape the ravages of imperialism; because it is safer in the eye of the storm than on the edge.
I keep going back to what Anuja said when we were just walking around the countryside near our bed-and-breakfast in the Shropshire Hills: “Why is this village so modern? We’re out in the middle of nowhere but there’s laundry and plumbing and electricity… oh right. It’s because they took the money from my villages [in rural India] and spent it on their villages.”
My mind has also been dwelling on something else; something that has no direct relationship to the wild hedges of rowan and sloe and holly or the spotted faces of the cows and sheep or to spending a few precious moments with Anuja before getting on a plane or even to the kindness and hospitality of our hosts. No, what my stupid, stubborn mind has been returning to is a discussion I got into in Social Studies class in 10th grade—some twenty years ago. We were learning about the age of imperialism (ok, ONE OF the ages of imperialism) and the textbook included an excerpt from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The White Man’s Burden.”
Take up the white man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.
The textbook did not contain the rest of the stanzas of the poem. But from reading this excerpt, I was convinced it was satire. I smile that I was so naive. But what was I to do? I loved Kipling. I had been raised on the Jungle Books and the Just So Stories (my mother had omitted the n-word from “How the Leopard got his Spots” and so had the reader of the audiobook we had taken with us on car-trips. So I was working from incomplete information on two counts when I thought that Kipling—my Kipling—couldn’t be a racist. It’s a remarkably naive thing to think about any 19th century British man. But there it is.
In a larger sense, I also associated beautiful writing with a more general greatness of soul. I hadn’t yet learned to think critically about the great authors—their political and economic connections, in particular, that led them to blindness on certain subjects; the supposedly great authors’ strings of ex-wives and (surely unrelated) misogynistic depictions of their female characters. Looking at you, Steinbeck. Always, always looking at you. So I thought that if a person wrote well, they had to be a decent person. And to an extent that is true, at least in the reverse. Pettiness makes you a bad writer. Steinbeck would have been a better writer but for his misogyny; Conrad, Pound, etc., but for their racism. And so on.
So there I was arguing with someone in Social Studies class about how this poem had to be satire. It had to be. And looking at that tableau from the outside, I’m sure I open myself up to the accusation of mansplaining: forcefully arguing my point, despite imperfect knowledge, against someone who knew better (not the teacher in this case, but another student, one who was on or above my intellectual level, and someone who had taken the rather necessary step of reading the whole poem… I probably hadn’t even known there was a whole poem to read). And yeah, ok. I’ll plead guilty to mansplaining in the first degree. But I think its important to talk about where that kind of regrettable behavior comes from, if only so we can root it out, and in this case, it was that something important to me was threatened. My sense of identity was partly founded on those books and the beautiful language and imagery I had learned from them. Some of my best memories with my parents (we are, thank God, still making memories, but those early ones are hard to supersede) involve curling up together and reading those books. I didn’t want to believe that one of the authors I was fondest of—one of the people who, in a real sense, raised me—was defending the murderous and lecherous excesses of the American imperial adventure in the Philippines. So to an outside observer it might have looked like I was just talking nonsense from a place of ignorance; and I was. I absolutely was. But from the inside, it felt as though I was trying to glue the two halves of my broken self back together and it just wasn’t working.
I don’t want to say something like ‘to my credit, when I read the rest of the poem and listened to my classmate’s arguments, I accepted that my childhood hero was racist.” I don’t think that’s “to my credit.” I think that’s the bare minimum. I COULD say “to my credit, I did the bare minimum.”
There’s a reason I remember that episode some two decades on; and why the most vivid part of that memory is not where the teacher was standing or what anyone was wearing, but only where the girl I was arguing with was sitting as she and I traded arguments, and how upset I was at the possibility (I was certain I was right; I really was; but nevertheless there was that possibility) of those books I cared about coming from such a place of ignorance and callousness. But perhaps there was something else. On the level of its music, “The White Man’s Burden” is as beautiful a poem as, on the level of its meaning, it is ugly. It’s really enchanting and exciting to read, in addition to being horrifyingly objectionable. So the question arises: what other ugly poem had I been enchanted by? What other work of literature had seduced me with its melodies but, upon further examination, would reveal ugly contradictions like these? Poor fool. I hadn’t even yet read Heart of Darkness or the various early modern plays about Jews and “Turks”—Tamburlaine, Selimus, The Jew of Malta… all that lay ahead of me. In some ways, that day when I was futilely debating “The White Man’s Burden” was my first day of school.
There’s a reason I’m going back to that debate, and it’s because, just as the agony of that moment remains with me, the clash it represents, between cultural ideals and economic realities, very much remains with us—with all of us. England is still rich off the resources it plundered from India and Africa (not unlike the United States). Many of those treasures are on display in the British Museum, where admission is granted free of charge but the cost of air travel and accommodations are not. But most of those treasures are on display in the fact that out-of-the-way English villages have running water and electricity and internet, while out-of-the-way Indian villages do not. Or in the fact that the most educated and sophisticated people, not just from England but from around the Commonwealth, still speak with versions of British accents. In fact, the more British you sound, the more sophisticated you are and vice versa. Why is the British accent the most sophisticated? Because the British told the rest of the world it was? At gunpoint? Is that the best system for picking a favorite accent?
I’m not picking on a given PoC who has cultivated a British accent, by the way. You do what you need to do to survive. I myself sanded off the edges of my Long Island accent around the time this memory takes place. I am simply arguing for a sense of awareness of the forces that shape our world, which is not a particularly original thing to argue for. But it’s what I got at the moment.
Ok. Here’s a cute story. So Anuja and I were tramping around Stokesay Castle, which is a lovely little landmark about fifteen minutes’ drive from where we were staying. Stokesay Castle looks like a town-house from one side (with beam-and-plaster construction) and like a castle form the other side with a huge, defensible tower. Surrounding the whole thing is a moat, long since dry, with apple trees growing up out of it. We spent maybe 2 hours walking through the rooms and listening to the guide tell us what each room was meant for; what each part of each room was meant for, and so on. Then we went outside and walked around inside the moat. I climbed one of the apple trees and picked apples from the topmost branches. And that’s when I noticed the mistletoe. It was growing directly out of the tree, as if it had grafted itself to one of the branches. It was visible from the ground, but I didn’t know what I was looking at. Tim Burton’s Batman Returns (and other movies set around Christmastime) aside, I had never really seen mistletoe; certainly not up close. I broke a branch off and we kept it in the car as a good-luck-charm for the rest of the trip.
But of course that got me curious. What is the deal with Mistletoe? Anuja had some questions, but I (not having grown up Christian or European or even Pagan, and not having any Jewish traditions surrounding the lil parasite) had precious few answers. So one day I went down the Wikipedia rabbit-hole and found out:
-Mistletoe is viewed as a fertility-charm in European-Pagan contexts. The conjecture is that it’s because the little white berries resemble semen. Now that’s a thing you know.
-When you hang mistletoe from the ceiling for a Christmas party, couples are supposed to seek it out and kiss under it; it’s not just that whoever happens to meet under it is supposed to exchange an awkward peck on the cheek or whatever. You may have known the rules to this game, but I certainly did not; it’s amazing how hearsay leads to these little inconsistencies. I shudder to think how much apologizing and explaining I’d need to engage in if, before learning this tidbit, I had ever been to a holiday party at which mistletoe was present.
-Mistletoe is actually good for trees. I had heard it is a parasite (and it is) but it also attracts birds to the area which then pollinate and propagate seeds, both for the mistletoe and the host-tree. Scientists have basically gone around counting, and the biodiversity of both birds and vegetation is higher in environments that contain mistletoe.
-Mistletoe is the golden bough that grants access to the underworld. Some species of mistletoe are green, and remain that way their whole life, just a-photosynthesizin’ away. Others grow to the point where they are securely latched to their host-plant and then they rely on the host’s photosynthesis and their own withers away. These types of mistletoe turn golden-yellow, like leaves in fall. So when the Sybil tells Aeneas (in Book 6 of the Aeneid) to find a bush with one golden branch, she is talking about mistletoe. How cool is that?
There’s more cool stuff about mistletoe but let’s pivot here, shall we?
Anyway, the second-to-last day we were in Shropshire, we had to give the car back to the rental company, and that meant emptying it of our possessions: a waterbottle, a pair of shoes, an iPhone cable… and this little sprig of mistletoe, considerably drier than it was when we first put it there, but still bright green. So we transferred it from the car to the coffee-table and thought no more of it until the next day when it was time to leave. On a whim, rather than throw it out into the yard, I used its forked branches to hang it from the curtainrod at the entrance to the apartment, so you would have to pass beneath it when you entered and left. I thought it would amuse our hosts to see it hanging there. I don’t necessarily believe in good-luck-charms, but I firmly believe that making people smile brings good luck.
So what I didn’t know (because I was wrestling with a suitcase in the driveway at the time) is that my little gesture had its intended effect rather immediately. One of our hosts came into the living room to see us off, noticed the mistletoe, and started laughing and said: you two are too funny. I asked Anuja, with more than a hint of urgency in my voice, if she told to our host that the only reason I put the mistletoe up there in the first place was so that she (the host) would find it funny and that she had thus fallen into my devious trap.
Reader, I regret to inform you, she did not.
If you enjoyed this one, I invite you to browse my other London Letters: