They Do Things Differently There

Laura Stiers is a third year English major studying abroad in London this quarter. In Dispatches from London, she blogs about books, curious Anglicisms, and literary culture in one of Europe’s most literary cities.

I’m doing my reading for tomorrow, a British political newspaper from 1931. Bored, I flip to the end to read the advertisements and the “London Amusements” page. There are theater listings, which reminds me: we’re going to a musical tonight. I check my e-mail to make sure I leave on time. I’m seeing Blood Brothers, 7:45 at the Phoenix Theater on Charing Cross Road. I click on the Wikipedia link about the show. Apparently it’s been running continuously in the same theater since 1988. I’ve never heard of it.

This musical I’ve never heard of, though it’s been performed every night and twice on Sundays longer than I’ve been alive.

An hour until I need to leave, I turn back to my reading, still open to the Amusements page. My eye falls again on the theater listings. There’s the Phoenix Theater, Charing Cross Road. Late Night Final, with Raymond Massey and Louise Hampton.

My mind boggles. People in 1931, people who read this very magazine, went to the same theater that I’ll be at in an hour. Of course, plenty of London theaters have been open since the ‘30s and even longer. Intellectually, I get it. But knowing is different from feeling it, from being faced with the past’s blunt solidity.

I take the Tube to Charing Cross Road, which is garish with theater signs and pub lights. There are people all around me doing nothing different from pedestrians on this same night in 1931: eating, gossiping, checking the time. I’ve come unstuck in time. Is it 2009? 1988? No. But I am ten minutes early, so I have some time to kill.

There’s a row of second-hand bookstores with bins of bargain books outside. I pick up a copy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and pause. People in 1931 read A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I realize. For that matter, people four hundred years ago read A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four hundred years ago, Shakespeare went to plays in London every night–across the river, true, but in London nonetheless. (They weren’t actually at night, either, but you see my point.)

It’s not exactly singing chimney sweeps and magical wardrobes, but there’s definitely something strange at work in London, something under the surface, uneasy and pervasive. It’s the omnipresent sense of history here, its influence of humanity on a place, accumulated with time. The repetition of actions, of experiences, of words. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but it’s all around me on Charing Cross Road at 7:36 on November 18 in 2009, 1988, 1931, 1594….

I signed up to study abroad in London. But the past is a foreign country too, and in this city, apparently it’s a package deal.