On the pavement flank of the café, my field of vision was being traversed, with the quiescent regularity of Attic horsemen galloping along the circumference of a drinking vessel, by strange women. Making their way up the Fulham Road, past the famous cinema, some of them moved in little groupings, like schools of gamboling goldfish; others singly and proudly, their hyperbolic determination a figure of Leibnizian optimism. It was now lunchtime, and some plaintive notes of the Pied Piper of Hamelin seemed to hang on the sweaty air, not least because the exodus along the pavement resembled the ordered swarm of jet-black bodies sprouting rats’ tails in the musicians’ scores, when, high up in a box at the theater, one peers through binoculars at the rickety stands in the magically illuminated orchestra pit.
Out of what fairy-tale woodwork had they come? All round lay the chalky white houses and the privately green squares of Chelsea, a honeycomb arrangement of such regular form it could not but oppress the eye corrupted by continental diversity. Such was the heritage of the Industrial Revolution. All round lay workers’ housing; whether built for lords or for grocers, it was utterly devoid of both princely caprice and commonplace individuality, so that the poorer houses differed from the richer ones in size alone, grandness being understood as a quality of mass, strictly quantitative and positional. But even the mass itself was meager by continental standards, a typical house of five stories anywhere in the Royal Borough easily fitting into a modest Roman apartment, to say nothing of a patrician palazzo in a provincial town. Seldom glimpsed around these parts, the occasional Georgian edifice came as a nostalgic shock, a keyhole revelation of the aristocratic boldness so greedily imagined by every descendant of regicides who sports a tartan.
On the inside, the workers’ houses were beset by mildew and woodworm, ravaged by rising damp, eroded by slovenly maids; while the workers were at work, deep in the bottomless shafts of investment banks, down in the money quarries, in the murky recesses of industriousness of every description; their children not heard, either by insouciantly auricled, musically impaired au pairs or by truant immigrant nannies; their grown daughters, and sometimes their still younger wives, out shopping. That is, parading unescorted through the city’s main thoroughfares in pursuit of the emotionally desired yet culturally unattainable.
Here, beauty did not tarry indoors. I remembered how I used to watch neatly aproned workmen repair the fences separating house from pavement, anchoring cast-iron bars in molten tin—then the red lead, then the gray weatherproofing, then the lustrous black of the final coat—while, inside the houses, faucets dripped and bathroom carpets quietly rotted. Here, the funhouse was all on the outside; honor and filth shut up within, in mournful solicitude; whoredom and beauty, in a gay symbiosis, out and about. It was their midday promenade up the Fulham Road that I was now observing, as they emerged from side streets that bore the forgotten names of dispossessed noblemen, from the decrepit woodwork of a deeply alienated city, from the interstices in the fabric of a society built on the dream of squaring the circle.
There were the two kinds in curiously unequal proportions, the virtuous and the venal: the virtuous molding themselves after their workingmen, that is to say, their husbands or fathers; the venal emulating these men’s mistresses. The first kind was desiccated, bloodless; the second, animated, fully charged, as if after a massive transfusion of the bank blood they had commandeered from the first by superior force. The former looked like they had cancer; the latter, in such ostentatiously good health that it seemed as though really and truly all the workers of the world had united in the unexpected aim of feeding and clothing, massaging and mollycoddling, amusing and possibly even adoring them.
Naturally, it was specimens of the latter kind that intruded most forcefully on my field of vision. Whose mistresses were they? Whose wives or daughters? They sped past, to fall back once again upon an imprecisely dated image, like Greek triremes, propelled by rhythmic strokes from invisible oarsmen snug in their holds; dynamic constituents of a victorious fleet that evoked the nation’s naval past and mocked its heroes; stilted pedestrians possessed of a winged dexterity of movement that would have shamed at least the lazier among zephyrs. Their venality lately engorged with the sales of midsummer, what they offered to the eye was an untold wealth of attributes, freshly enhanced or newly acquired, which was now displayed with the meticulousness associated with museum exhibitions, or operating theaters, or table settings in great though not necessarily hospitable houses.
Thus the undulation of silk, for instance, had been pressed into service to suggest a gentleness of character, to which a crisp sense of humor, represented by the slightly giddy petit pois with which the fabric had been printed, was doubtless a desirable supplement; heels had been worn to sound an alarum in the passerby’s soul, hinting at an unbridled cruelty that would seek fulfilment in passion, while at the same time restraining the malfeasant and throwing her, like a missing chattel restored to the lawful owner, upon the tender mercy of her victim; pursed like the plumpest of lips, handbags had been shaped with the care that the 18th century lavished on sentiment, with the result that at last they had come to resemble the alleged organs of sentiment, down to their elaborate fastenings, more ornamental than functional.
In a few months’ time, the scene would change with the season, as oleaginous silk and ironically egalitarian cotton gave way to cunning mink and sparkly tweed, ushering in a new set of visual and tangible symbols; yet there was little doubt that, in their turn, these would again serve to represent, counterfeit, or dramatize these same totemic attributes, again to the audience’s imperfect though perennially consuming satisfaction. To a culture deeply incriminated in lovelessness, these women’s things were the artful accessories.