A Story of Origins

I can’t get London off my mind. After a dazzling opening ceremonies last night that poignantly captured British history and culture, my heart went back to 2009 when I visited the city for the first time.

It was summer of my 3rd year in university. Being an English minor and knowing I wanted to eventually do my Master’s in English Lit, I knew I also couldn’t go further in this field without taking a trip to the birthplace of what I was studying. It may sound silly but I really felt I had to experience the origin of what I loved to love it even more – as if a dark cloud would be hanging over me and my academic future if I didn’t make this trip. I had to go.

I went with so much expectation, hoping to find answers about where I should study for grad school (Canada or England?) and what area I should specialize in (17th century, Romantic, Victorian, or modern literature?) I came back without much clarity on these questions (I’ve learned that when I want a big revelation in life, I don’t get it), but I did come back with a magical summer I like to relive every now and then.

Herstmonceux Castle, England

I studied literature at a castle about 45 min south of London (see pic above) – yes, a castle with sheep baaing out my bedroom window and a Shakespearean garden where I read As You Like ItThe Winter’s Tale, Oliver Twist and Mrs. Dalloway. How much more British can you get? It felt like I was transported into a fairy tale world, or maybe Harry Potter. Not only did I read Shakespeare’s plays but I experienced them in their original form, performed at the Globe theatre in London, where I stood so close to the stage I could see the sweat dripping from the actor’s faces.

front-line view of the Globe Theatre, London

After the six-week program at the Castle was complete, I did my own literary tour through the UK.

With my bucket-list of places to visit that I had only experienced second-hand through books, I traipsed through England, Scotland, and Wales to see places like this first-hand:

Tintern Abbey, Wales

Romantic poet William Wordsworth made this abandoned Cisterian monastery famous in his lyrical poem, “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” Did the words ever come alive when I was reading them in the space that inspired them!

How oft, in darkness, and amid the many shapes / Of joyless day-light; when the fretful stir / Unprofitable, and the fever of the world, / Have hung upon the beatings of my heart, / How oft, in spirit, have I turned to thee / O sylvan Wye! Thou wanderer through the woods / How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Overlooking the River Wye, Wales

“While here I stand, not only with the sense of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts that in this moment there is life and food for future years.”

Early grey tea and a poem. Couldn’t have been happier

I’m looking back on this trip three years ago and realize there was life and food in it for future years, even though I didn’t see it at the time. I took a course that summer called “Literature and Place” that ended up having a huge influence on my interests in grad school. We took field trips to London to regularly walk the city like a character in a novel, travel the tube, and get to know the city that provides a muse for so many writers.

This London course began in me a fascination with literature and cities that hasn’t ended yet – nor do I want it to. I applied a lot of what I learned in London to my Canadian home context, Vancouver, when I wound up doing grad school (in Canada), and I’m still exploring ideas from the course in my current creative and non-fiction writing. So I guess London hasn’t left me yet, nor left me unchanged . . .

Needless to say, because of this background, I loved the literary references in last night’s ceremonies. Did any part of the long 4-hour ceremony strike a special London memory with you?

Children representing the Great Ormond Street Hospital, the NHS and children’s literature take part in the Opening Ceremony. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Spaces with a Literary ‘Twist’

When I walk around cities, I tend to snap a lot of photos – typically of houses or buildings that catch me eye for whatever reason – well, usually because they make me think of something else.

For example:

1. Here’s a Victorian-style B&B in Victoria whose white and maroon spindles (attached to the lower roof) remind me of bowling pins:

2. I’ve talked about this fairytale house before with its keyhole door. Doesn’t it look like a hobbit house in Lord of the Rings?

3. And combining fairytale houses with Victorian houses, here’s another that looks like a doll house:

Then there are places that catch my eye specifically because they allude to literary texts:

4. The Artful Dodger Pub in Langley named after a character in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist:

Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin. Original engraving by George Cruikshank.

 

 

 

 

 

5. The cleverly-titled bakery “Life of Pie” that puns on the book Life of Pi by Canadian author Yann Martel that I read in high school English class — a great read with an ending that will knock your socks off.

6. And lastly, this one isn’t a direct allusion but can you guess what literary text it made me think of?

Address of a residence in Victoria's historic Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown - only 5 feet wide!

If you guessed Harry Potter, you guessed right. 16 1/2, 9 3/4? Okay, so the numbers aren’t the same, but how often do you come across “half” addresses? Apparently it’s a common feature in historic Chinatowns – nothing to do with the space being on the second floor or between floors (I asked once on a tour).

King's Cross Station in London, England. Site of the famous liminal crossing in Harry Potter.

So there are some textual spaces that have struck me. Which ones have you noticed in your city?