Monday, April 10, 2006

Crystal-like rain-screens

‘I think the smoky, sooty surfaces of the walls of most London buildings do not bear close examination, but look beautiful behind the crystal-like rain-screens, which give them lustre.’ This is from Chiang Yee’s The Silent Traveller in London (1938), a travel book in which he sees the city with the eyes and sensibility of a Chinese landscape painter. ‘As I walk, the typical drizzle sometimes accompanied by gusts is blown in my face and brings an indescribable feeling…’ Reading this kind of thing almost makes the dismal spring weather acceptable: it’s possible to see beyond the wet wind stinging your face and sapping your energy and appreciate the city as if walking inside a misty watercolour.

It is not just the rain that brings Chiang Yee pleasure. He says ‘I have enjoyed the London fog in many circumstances.’ On one occasion a bemused Londoner tries to assure Chiang that he would be wasting a shilling to look at the view from Westminster Cathedral on a foggy day, but the ‘silent traveller’ makes the ascent anyway. From the top of the tower he looks out on a sea of mist, feeling as if he is in heaven, far away from the street and its traffic. He quotes an anecdote from Lin Yutang’s book The Importance of Living (1937) in which an American lady is taken to the hills of Hangchow to ‘see nothing’. As they climb she asks “what is there?” and is reassured that there are wonderful sights at the top. ‘Finally they reached the summit. All about them was an expanse of mists and fogs, with the outline of distant hills barely visible on the horizon.’

No comments: