This is a riff on something I read which I can’t remember where it came from. Apologies to the author of the original article.
So it was, then, that he had invited her, Marthe, to a Sunday walk on a cold, bright day in February. He couldn’t afford to take her to dinner, he said, but a Sunday stroll he could afford, and anyway, quoting Balzac, “strolling is the gastronomy of the eye.” By way of come on, he suggested the idea of The Delirious Museum, which is, he explained, any crowded but unfamiliar street that would allow them to stroll, comme des flaneurs, observing with interest but in a disengaged way, the unfathomable complexity of the city’s past. Any street will do, Marcel said to Marthe – any street can be the Delirious Museum. It is just a matter of attention – not to the overblown state monuments and architectural public gestures, but to the ordinary details of any old street. “What are the streets of your life?” he pressed her. “Mine are Rue de Pourquoi-Pas, Place St. Helene, Rue de la Colombe.”
“You can learn a lot about the past – and it’s a pleasant distraction too,” he coaxed. Street signs, par exemple, you can see that the famous white on blue plaques are sometimes placed over names cut into the stone buildings. Did she know that the revolutionaries had decreed that no royal or religious epithets were to be allowed and that was why no saints’ names were allowed. Later, Napoleon, as with so many things, standardised the signs.
>> What are the streets of your life? The 1950s suburbs and the 1960s estates. History in hedges and roses and street names. Willow Way. Links Road. Prospect Terrace. Old Orchard. There were no willows in Willow Way – were there once? Where Holman Hunt had painted the Hogsmill River? The breezy shoreline golf links where the skylarks sang at four in the morning, and the salmon fishers had once hauled their coble boats up the beach.. Was there once a prospect of the River Dee at Prospect Terrace, now obscured by fish packing factories, the railway yards, the castellated prison? Was there once a well-to-do family in the house, smugly overlooking their prospect from the top of the hill, now isolated and semi-derelict in a modern estate of white pebble-dashed bungalows? What civic mind decreed that what people wanted was street names that evoked a lost countryside, while simultaneously attesting to guilty acknowledgement that those very streets lay over the countryside they had destroyed. Old Orchard, a 1960s estate of small houses in a new town built for London ‘overspill’ as it was called, evoking a nostalgia of ‘oldness’ as desirable, nostalgic, prized – a prettiness of cherry blossom, of nature’s free bounty, for city dwellers leaving their urban, old, ‘condemned’ homes for a better life in a new house, ‘in the country’. Old Orchard was a pig farm. It stank. It was noisy with oinks.
On that cold city afternoon Marcel showed Marthe that in les places, you could still see that the ground floors of the grand houses had been given over to shops and workplaces – even now small businesses crowded the pedestrianised streets. In London, by contrast, business was banned from impinging on the lives of the nobility. Nothing of the noisy, haphazard vitality of the people who passed their lives in the streets, hauling, banging, dragging, calling, disputing, would ever penetrate the hushed and secluded life being lived indoors by the propertied classes in England. Marcel and Marthe sat at a table set on the pavement in the loud promiscuity of the street. “When you go into the museum, what do you see? Teacups from which no one drinks, hand mirrors that reflect nothing, pictures which will never be bought by someone who knew just where they wanted to hang them in their home, stuffed animals poised as if startled and about to run from your gaze, things torn from their workaday context – the inkless pen, the fishless basket, the single shoe, the empty oil jar, the lintel of a door that has no entrance…”