London: A Pilgrim’s Progress

The Road Home

by Rose Tremain
Little, Brown/Back Bay, 417 pp., $24.99; $14.99 (paper)

When Alexander Herzen came to London in 1852, an exiled stranger in the richest city on earth, he found its indifference reassuring. The place was dreary, unhealthy, monstrously unjust but also unchanging:

One who knows how to live alone has nothing to fear from the tedium of London. The life here, like the air, is bad for the weak, for the frail, for one who seeks a prop outside himself, for one who seeks welcome, sympathy, attention; the moral lungs must be as strong as the physical lungs, whose task it is to separate oxygen from the smoky fog….

He missed his wife and small daughters; only his little son Sergei was with him. When Sergei was asleep, Herzen went out to prowl the silent city with its “street-lights without end in both directions,” and leaned brooding over its bridges:

One city, full-fed, went to sleep: the other, hungry, was not yet awake—the streets were empty and nothing could be heard but the measured tread of the policeman with his lantern. I used to sit and look, and my soul would grow quieter and more peaceful. And so for all this I came to love this fearful ant-heap, where every night a hundred thousand men know not where they will lay their heads, and the police often find women and children dead of hunger beside hotels where one cannot dine for less than two pounds.

For over a hundred years after that, exiles and refugees finding their way to London confessed to much the same mixture of feelings. The silent indifference of the English to these foreigners in their midst was inhuman. The poverty, inequality, and privileged arrogance of the place were horrifying. And yet the very fact that nothing much ever changed—the “measured tread” of a deeply conservative, law-abiding society—was somehow calming.

For people who had fled from places where everything old and loved was slithering to destruction, where the rules of every game might change overnight, the continuity of England made the “soul grow quieter and more peaceful”—even the soul of a revolutionary like Herzen. So it was for fugitives from France after the Commune, for the Jewish immigrants from tsarist Russia, and for most of the thousands in flight from the Nazis. In those times, there was only one immigrant group for which the imperviousness of London had no attractions. That was the biggest group of all and the only one to have experienced English colonialism: the Irish.

Now, it seems, everything is different. It’s change, not permanence, that makes London famous. The postwar inrush of Asian and Afro-Caribbean migrants is long-settled, often third-generation British. London has accelerated through ghetto multiculturalism to become one of the most adventurously hybrid cities on earth. And in the last four years, since the first post-Communist nations joined the European Union, a fresh torrent of young job-seekers from Central and Eastern Europe arrived. Nearly a million of them were Polish, many of them now preparing to …

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