The Matter of Manners – In Pursuit of Civility by Keith Thomas

Baldassare Castiglione, author of The Book of the Courtier


In Pursuit of Civility – Manners and Civilisation in Early Modern England

Keith Thomas, Yale: New Haven and London, hb., 457 pages

Among the Bodleian Library’s celebrated Douce Collection of arcana,  incunabula and later works is an instructional manuscript of circa 1350, which contains the first-known written English expression of what was almost certainly already a cliché – ‘Maner makys man’. Maybe William of Wykeham, Chancellor of England to both Edward III and Richard II, read this very manuscript – because when he founded Winchester College and New College, Oxford, in the 1370s he chose ‘Manners makyth man’ as motto for both. But what did ‘manners’ mean in fourteenth century England, and what do they mean now? How are they made – and how do they make? How can we decode these complex ciphers – so changeable, inconsistent, irrational, ludicrous, oppressive, petty, self-serving – and so essential, persistent, salutary, and uplifting? 

Keith Thomas has approached this almost limitless subject with the same thoroughness with which he tackled Religion and the Decline of Magic (1971), Man and the Natural World: Changing Attitudes in England, 1500-1800 (1983), and The Ends of Life: Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (2009) – and with which doubtless he chairs the Supervisory Committee of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. He has brought a fully-examined life’s reading to bear on this book, erudition so exhaustive that at times it almost overwhelms his text as he indefatigably adds counter-reference to reference, in a torrent of well-contextualised quotations revealing the infinite complexities and contradictions of early modern English behaviour. 

There are almost one hundred pages of notes, authorities balanced finely against each other – an oddly hypnotic catalogue raisonée of a huge and mostly forgotten exhortatory literature. His treatment is likely to prove unsurpassable as summation of this cajoling corpus, which over so many centuries has done so much to reflect, refract and shape England’s essence. The study of English manners is the most rewarding of all such ethnologies, because here social manners are so central a preoccupation – burgeoning even in the Iron Age, throwing out luxuriant shoots under Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, medieval and early modern cultivators, before being transplanted worldwide. 

Not content with comprehensiveness, Sir Keith aspires also to objectivity –

As a Welshman, and therefore something of an outsider, I have tried to study the English people in the way an anthropologist approaches the inhabitants of an unfamiliar society. 

His ‘outsider’ status extends farther, because he is also an undogmatic humanist, who can view ancient and modern Christianity (once the source and long a motive force of English manners) with coolness, acknowledging its instrumentality as well as its inadequacies.  

‘Manners’ is sometimes narrowly understood as meaning the everyday, taken-for-granted rituals we observe in order to live more easily with each other. But even the smallest observances, like saying ‘please’, are not as simple as they may seem. Behind the minutiae of manners, Pierre Bourdieu asserted, one can glimpse ‘a whole cosmology, an ethic, a metaphysic, a political philosophy’. This sounds like overstatement, but these things do arouse strong emotions, those who omit them at hazard of being thought arrogant, boorish, crass, impertinent, or sociopathic. If, as Georg Simmel had earlier argued, gratitude is ‘the moral memory of mankind’, those who fail to give thanks, or who give them in the wrong way or at the wrong time, can be seen as moral malefactors, and worthy of condign chastisement. Similarly, those who dress ‘indecently’, or fail to wash, or are unkind to animals or children, or have the wrong faith, or tastes, or views, have always faced social sanctions, from sniggering and snubbing via public insult and legal action to mob or state violence.

Manners are about whole attitudes and modes of living – civilisation as opposed to primitivism, nurture as opposed to nature, urbanity as opposed to rusticity. They may be promulgated in polemics, or lampooned in comedies of manners – and are often seen as outward signs of inner worth. To be ‘polished’ or polite is to be advanced, considerate, educated, sophisticated, superior in some sense. To be rude, churlish or ‘clownish’ is to be deficient, gauche, provincial, retrograde, sometimes verging on semi-human. Sometimes top-down condescension is repaid by recipients, the upper classes portrayed as epicene and ridiculous, like Colley Cibber’s Lord Foppington, or the ‘Frenchified’ dandy pictured in a 1770 engraving in this book, facing fisticuffs from a John Bullish butcher while a prostitute pulls his greased queue. 

Ideas of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour appear to be immemorial and ubiquitous. Probably every society had or has taboos surrounding bodily functions, cleanliness, religious belief and sexual intercourse, and ideas of ‘correct’ conduct have probably always been coterminous with politics, religion, self-definition and self-esteem. In fifth century BC Athens, those who could not speak Greek were dubbed barbaroi (barbarians) – at first neutrally, but increasingly pejoratively. Xenophobic dismissiveness helped codify Greek corporate identity, portraying geopolitical competitors as not just enemies of Greeks, but of civilisation itself. Scythians, many Hellenes held, were cruel, ignorant, nomadic, and unlettered – while even worse human/subhuman horrors awaited in the wind-blasted wastes of northwestern Europe, or the endless sun-punished deserts behind the Greek colonies of the African and Asian coasts. The Persians – grudgingly admitted to be quite cultured in their way – were nevertheless still barbaric, because they were ‘decadent’ and tolerated despotic government. The Romans would also sometimes be ridiculed as vulgar cultural counter-jumpers. Naturally, the Scythians, Persians and Romans had ideas of their own on these matters – but tendencies to distinguish and separate seem as old as the species.

The Dark Ages added more means of differentiation and stratification, as new nations warred within themselves and against each other. But always there are recurring themes – elites versus masses, the educated versus the uncultivated, the court versus the country, the old versus the young, community members versus outsiders, believers versus non-believers – and laws and manners to manage the constant ebbing and flowing of class, dynastic, economic, ethnic, political and religious fortunes. ‘History can be seen’ says the author, ‘as the story of how different patterns of conventional restraint have succeeded each other’. There were always leading lights like Boethius entreating everyone to be more virtuous, countless Scripturally-inspired didacticists and natural philosophers promulgating ideals of agreeableness, bearing, mildness, modesty, restraint, suavity, and wit.

Early Christian and Scholastic notions of ‘virtue’ and ‘nurture’ evolved into ‘chivalry’, exemplified by knights fighting Christianity’s wars from Lithuania to Jerusalem. Chaucer’s fourteenth century paragon has fought gallantly, but is also ‘meeke as is a mayde…a verray, parfit gentil knight’. In 1516’s Orlando Furioso, Bradamant is told her grandson will ‘defend Holy Church against the barbarians’. Now, it was not non-Greeks but non-Christians who were backwards, even beast-like – which permitted treating them with utmost severity. The chivalric ‘Decalogue’ outlined by chivalry’s great nineteenth century interpreter Léon Gautier prescribed ‘unceasing and merciless war against the infidel’ – although this was supposed only to apply on the battlefield. Edmund Spenser saw no discrepancy between his fantastical ‘Gentle Knight pricking on the plaine’ and his day job as Lord Deputy of Ireland putting down the natives with their ‘savage brutishness and loathsome filthiness’.

Chivalry commingled with ‘courtesy’, examples of decorum, dress, education, language, morality and even posture filtering down constantly from courts largely through writers like Baldassare Castiglione, whose 1528 Book of the Courtier was translated into English in 1561. As Christianity split, Catholics and Protestants differentiated their societies and themselves from the mistaken (or diabolical) denominational Other. Divergences over doctrine overlapped with old animosities and stereotypes, and spawned countless day-to-day divergences  – Catholics seen by Protestants as shiftless, superstitious and untrustworthy, Protestants seen by Catholics as ill-educated, plebeian, and uptight. Dissenters often saw social rituals like bowing or being complimentary as akin to genuflection in church. Anglicans often viewed public religious discussions as vulgar, because likely to lead to dinner-table awkwardness – not to mention the undermining of the entire Elizabethan settlement. 

Renaissance humanists revisiting classical antiquity also entreated Europeans to become more civilised, with Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerilium of 1530 translated into English in 1532 as A Lytell Booke of Good Maners for Chyldren. Christianity started to be augmented as civilisation-signifier by co-existing, contradicting ideas of both Europe’s oldness and its Prometheanism. A ready-made foil for sixteenth century theorists of civilization and difference lay close at hand, in the expansionist, ‘infidel’ Ottomans (our humanist author would eschew such ‘Islamophobia’, let alone their still resounding ideas of a ‘clash of civilisations’.) The navigators of Portugal, England, France, Spain, Holland and Venice were also opening up huge new fields of imaginative play, as they brought home accounts of the exotic indigenes of Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Emerging information on non-European societies encouraged some to see Europe as ineffably, obviously superior – because non-Europeans looked so different, spoke incomprehensible tongues, worshipped odd gods, had few (or no) European-style governments, ate strange things, wore peculiar (or too few) clothes. Bodily comportment and emotional restraint had long been thought of as ‘outwards signs of the inner dispositions of the soul’, so loincloths or sarongs suggested loose morals to Europeans who saw nothing incongruous in doublets, farthingales or stove-pipe hats. (We can only speculate what Castiglione, Erasmus or Hobbes – or even early cultural relativists – would have made of some twenty-first century Europeans’ obesity, states of undress, swearing and tattoos.)  

Manners were weaponised to aim outwards as well as in – intercontinental behaviour missiles used by utterly sincere Christians to excuse African, Asian and American exploitations, expropriations, expulsions, and slavery. There were ancient admonitory precedents; Aristotle had advocated honestas and humanitas between Greeks, but he also said barbarians were born to be slaves. There were also plenty of early modern colonialists who saw no contradiction between private goodness, even kindliness – and policies permitting chattels and ethnic cleansing. What we now call ‘international law’, often cited to undercut national and Western sovereignties, was born in Salamanca, and added to by the Dutch jurist Grotius and the German natural lawyer Pufendorf, and naturally reflected sixteenth-seventeenth century European assumptions. It also contained elements now usually uninvoked by international lawyer-activists, such as Grotius’ view that victors of battles were entitled to slaughter prisoners unless their own states forbade this distinctly unchivalrous practice.

One of the author’s principal aims is to show that anti-colonialism, cultural pluralism and relativism long predate our era, and he cites Ovid, Saint Paul (I. Corinthians, XIV, 11 – ‘If I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian, and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian unto me’), Spanish Dominicans, Montaigne, Smith, Diderot, and many others.  These chapters could betoken a descent into P.C. hectoring – 2018’s ritual obeisances – but the author is too careful. He qualifies his approval of old open-mindedness by reminding us, for example, that some American Colonial-era accounts praising the Indians as friendly and welcoming were knowingly misleading, written to gull more English into coming. As another example of nascent New World sensitivities, the author asks twice why, if the English settlers really believed Indians childishly unknowing of private property rights and incapable of self-government, they so often insisted on paying them for the land they were taking? It’s an interesting question – although the answer may simply be that even the most greedily obtuse among Albion’s seed nursed vestigial guilt about theft. 

In the dawning, deist Age of Reason, manners drifted yet farther from their moral underpinnings, and their apparent ethical emptiness was often noted. The ultra-urbane Lord Chesterfield’s 1744 Letters to his (illegitimate) son were vilified by Dr. Johnson as combining ‘the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing master’. Johnson was being unjust, because Chesterfield’s emphasis on external appearances did not preclude internal goodness  – but the Great Cham was giving voice to an old English (and Protestant) detestation of ‘coxcombery’ and ‘mummery’, over-civility seen as servility. This bluff ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ was itself something of an affectation – yet even now, the North of England holds out an ideal of itself as gruff but good, Philistine but plain-spoken, more substantive than the smooth South.

Intellectuals on all social sides vied constantly to preserve privileges, or assert rights. Adhering to the majority faith, having a particular accent, wearing certain clothes, going to certain schools, or using a fork for eating, were often moral imperatives – but they were also tactics used to put an ‘inferior’ in his place, or show a ‘superior’ you were as good as he. These daily de rigeurs changed constantly, and as soon as any rules changed they would be enforced in a million subtle and unsubtle ways. In Pursuit of Civility is predictably rich in contemptuous or indignant animadversions about the ‘incivility’ or ‘rudeness’ of entire classes or countries (one curious omission is Frances Trollope’s wonderfully withering 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans). It is also rich in their opposites – generous, gushing, pluralistic, or relativistic remarks about entire classes or countries, and others’ cultures. For every Smollett, travelling through France and Italy and hating almost everything he finds, there seems to be a Sterne making a Sentimental Journey.

Tendencies and counter-tendencies are always ironically equipoised. Elizabethan and Jacobean administrations permitted torture in special circumstances (even though torture was banned under Common Law) – so long as the torturers were ‘gentle and merciful’ and used the rack ‘in as charitable a manner as such a thing might be’. 

The Commonwealth Solicitor-General John Cook, who led the state’s case against Charles I, may have been a regicide, but he also called courtesy 

the most precious pearl that any man in authority may wear, for it buyeth men’s hearts. 

The English Civil Wars really were relatively ‘civil’ when compared with contemporaneous conflicts, because ‘the contending parties shared a common culture and were linked by ties of kinship and friendship’. Atrocities were, however, committed in Ireland, whose largely Catholic and clannish – and poorer – people were widely regarded as inferior and outdated. Allegations of being outdated and so uncivilised would come to be levelled with increasing force as the economic forces of the Industrial Revolution were joined and justified by Darwinism, imperialism, and race science. 

Restoration, Queen Anne and Georgian England also contained modish multitudes –  

Later seventeenth century England saw both growing politeness and the birth of pornography…good breeding in the eighteenth century was accompanied by sexual libertinism, heavy drinking, brutal sports, bawdy and scatological humour and scurrilous gossip.

It is startling to learn that as late as 1763, the visiting Casanova saw people defecating openly in city streets, albeit with their faces turned to the wall to maintain their ‘modesty’. 

Slowly, somehow, between the recalcitrant earthiness of a few and the expostulations of uplifters, Chesterfield’s ideal of ceremonious sociability transmuted into nineteenth and twentieth century etiquette, which Thomas derides as ‘purely arbitrary prescriptions, peculiar to a particular social milieu and lacking any mental or moral foundation.’ There was – and still is – acute anxiety born of social uncertainty – about elocution, whether to say ‘lavatory’ or ‘toilet’, whether to leave the bottom button of one’s waistcoat undone (as Edward VII exampled –  he was too portly to do it up), or how to address anyone from the Queen or the sons of Scottish clan chiefs to RAF officers or surgeons. The countless ‘U’ and ‘non-U’ considerations and ‘refining’ accretions of 1800-1968 were always being challenged and mocked, but each has left its trace, and even now they wait in England’s anthropological anteroom, neither in demand nor finally dismissible.  

Chivalry likewise lingers sadly in the West, an unhorsed knight with a battered helm and notched sword fighting many foes – vague ideals of forbearance and honour, and practices like holding doors open for women (such sexist politesse is sometimes seen as ‘unacceptable’ by modern moralists). Aristocracies may have been upturned, and Christian and pre-1960s Western sensibilities downgraded, but courtly trace-elements tinge ‘humanitarianism’ – ideas of old decencies now skewed to unman the no longer world-straddling West. Thomas adjudges wryly,

It is common for people today to declare portentously that “the hallmark of a civilised society” is the way it treats animals, say, or children, or the universities, or refugees…Sometimes such assertions reflect a considered view as to what an ideal form of society would look like. More often, they are just bids for sympathy.

Many moderns pride themselves on being ‘above’ old protocols and punctilio, and on their freedom from socially conservative shibboleths and stereotypes. We are certainly less formal and obviously hierarchical than often before (although maybe old hierarchies have simply been replaced by new ones). In any case, In Pursuit shows there have always been some who fled from rather than pursued the à la mode, and others who were left outside The Pale through no choice of their own. Today’s narcissists were prefigured by the Cynics, nostalgie de la boue, and aristocrats pretending to be plebeian – while old racial and social caricatures have simply been replaced. Yesterday’s ‘boors’, ‘churls’ and ‘clowns’ are today’s football fans, Trump voters and Brexit-supporters. Former ‘savages’ are now ‘unspoilt’ – and the ‘barbarous Moors’ of yore are now tolerant multiculturalists. Once world-beating ‘European civilisation’ is now picked up in morality’s tweezers for sniffy examination, before being resigned as ideological invention designed for exploitative and hateful purposes. Autre temps, autres mœurs.

In 1748, Montesquieu wrote – ‘the more people there are in a nation…who need to deal with each other and not cause displeasure, the more politeness there is.’ It follows that the more these more plentiful people diverge in culture and outlook, the more complex and forced the forms of the new politeness – increasingly literally forced by governments. Montesquieu was righter than he realised when he referred to civilised nations as un peuple policé. Countless painfully-won semi-consensuses about civility, morality and society are now being cast up constantly into the stratosphere in a mania of experimentation for experimentation’s sake. But rather than being liberated, we may instead be becoming excessively refined.

This review first appeared in the October 2018 issue of Quadrant, and is reproduced with permission

As I went walking down Broadway…

As I went walking down Broadway…

Cities, like men, are embodiments of the past and mirages of unfulfilled dreams

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Matrix of Man, 1968

The subway train clanked and screeched out of the darkness at last into stretched autumnal sunshine. I rattled northwards in an emptying carriage gazing down on nameless nondescript streets, and sometimes straight into ex-offices within which the same endeavours had probably been carried on from when the building had been erected in the early 20th century up until the last family firm member had locked up for the last time before heading out to suburban superannuation. There was a final rattle and squeal, a glare of water, and I was on the platform thirty feet above 225th Street watching the Bronx-bound train pull complainingly away.

Then I was down on the street, and the sun was bouncing back at me from off the River, and there were leaves turning to gold, and sparrows screaming in the tangled ironwork of the bridge. I was curiously aware of crowding ghosts – memories of the freebooters who had claimed this broad new territory for their crowded Netherlands, its proudly Protestant Stadtholder and their Dutch East India employers. My back was to the Bronx and Yonkers – to my right was Spuyten Duyvil Creek – below the bridge the Harlem River – and beyond the bridge, my chosen companion for the next 14 miles, the Heerestraat or Breede Weg of Nieuw Amsterdam which had gradually become the Broadway of New York.

I crossed the bridge and was back on the island, standing at Manhattan’s northern tip with the famous road already threatening to run away with me, diagonally down more than 200 blocks towards its glamorous terminus, where the tourists stand in lines for hours to board the boats that haul them across the harbour to where the huge, haloed woman holds up a torch to evoke opportunity and America.

Here at Broadway’s little known other end, in Inwood, the streets undulate – mostly down from Manhattan’s spine west towards the Hudson, but even Broadway buckling occasionally as if it can barely hold the topography in check. You get a sudden sense of the old Wickquasgeck Road that ran this way before the whites came.

A 1930s guide to New York said of Inwood,

Rivers and hills insulate a suburban community that is as separate as any in Manhattan

– a turn of phrase simultaneously redolent of security and the proximity of wilderness. Inwood is no longer insulated. The huddled masses of Mesoamerica have overflowed up here, reclaiming the island sold by their distant genetic kin in 1626 for 60 guilders (the agreement was concluded in what is now Inwood Hill Park) – and they have taken over from the Irish and Jewish prewar residents, some of whom must still live in the Art Deco apartment blocks, longing for gentrification.

Lately, the Mesoamericans have been joined by Muslims – all of them jumbled up together in a welter of squalid shops, parking lots, auto-body repair joints, bulldozed spaces where buildings once stood and the graffiti-tagged twisting iron ribbon of the subway track with its screeching stock. Here they are recreating Dominica, or increasingly Algeria, inside the shells of the Anglos’ edifices – selling things that only the most desperate or debased could desire.

In Inwood’s genteel west, they cling onto illusions – fragments of forest and saltmarsh, the Dutch colonial Dyckman House and views of The Cloisters, but east of Broadway Inwood is real and relevant, rich in nylon T-shirts and jogging bottoms, Day of the Dead decorations, plastic statues of the Virgin, latex Halloween masks in the form of multi-eyed Rastafarians or axe-cloven heads, pallid meat from sheep that would have died slowly swinging by their back legs as their throats were sliced open, and tremulous Thanksgiving thighs from the turkeys I saw standing bent-necked in bare metal cages, in a dank, dripping, excrement-ammoniac sub-hell populated by smoking, spitting, swarthy camp guards.

Judging from all the election posters that no-one had troubled to translate, the Partido Revolucionario Dominicano – seemingly sated with statesmanship at home – was making a determined play for control for the Sector Externo New York, while for the less public-spirited, layers of over-pasted posters advertised such all-American entertainments as Joe Veras, Toque Dequeda and El Negro. The badly lettered signs in some shop windows announcing “We Accept Food Stamp/Nosotros Aceptamos Cupones de Comida” showed that not all the Rockefellers-manqué had made it.

Great roads have their own logic and pace, and Broadway carried me on out of Dominica Externo into an intersectionland of traffic lights and offices, allowing short detours to examine enticements like the gleam of green at the pleasingly named Swindler Cove, or to watch a fat black traffic warden slumped on a doorstep trying to catch her breath after a gentle stroll, buying a Coke from an African couple pushing a presumably purloined supermarket trolley piled high with Coke cans – where had they got those? I itched to make a citizen’s arrest.

By the time I got down to around 197th, Catholicism-cum-Santeria had given way grudgingly (with occasional relapses) to Judaism. Cohen’s Gentle Dental was advertised by a smiling tooth wearing blue boots, yarmulke-sporting students asked me for directions to the yeshiva, and an ancient scowling man with a twisted back and a smell of rancid clothes took time out from gathering bundles of free newspapers to ask in a heavy Yiddish accent if I could give him a dollar for the bus.

Then Judaism gave way to a braggart non-conformism, with the “Rev Ike” on every Sunday at 2.45pm at the Christ United Church, in what looked like a 1930s cinema – a suitably hideous setting for such a must-miss missionary.

There was no such vulgarity at 155th, where there was set an Episcopalian church in grandly Gothic style to convey the impression of hyperboreal antiquity – set in a neat little garden of well-behaved grass and upright tombstones marking the remains of upright people, with a tasteful sign advertising decorous services to passers-by who would probably prefer to watch the Rev Ike. All New York Episcopalian churches give the same impression of good. gloomy Gotham taste combined with deadness.

Rather than either Ike or Episc, I would always prefer the most joyful sight of the whole walk – a harsh scream above the cars, outstretched claws and a blur of azure, as a blue jay hurled itself argumentatively into a tree in the middle of the road, like its ancestors had been doing hereabouts long before even Wickquasgeck.

I was surprised to notice that the iron gratings on the drains had “Made in India” stamped on them – as I had earlier noticed that almost all Big Apple souvenirs are manufactured in China. But then New York now has an increasingly tenuous relationship with America – let alone the Europeans who founded the city and the country the city once represented. The little man who sat mending clothes in the window below a shop sign advertising “Nordic Cleaners” may well have been a cleaner, but he was no Nordic – and it suddenly occurred to me I had not noticed any Nordics for hours.

And so I passed interestedly across the island, past huge buildings of the strictly functional type so admired by Ayn Rand, and handsome ones in pastiches of European styles, like the American Geographical Society, which looked like it had been plucked from South Kensington – an institution whose staff no longer need to venture far in search of exotica.

At 116th was the little proud universe of Columbia University, where future leaders lolled confidently before neo-classical porticoes, and security guards spoke into handsets below statues presented by the well-rounded sounding 1890 Class of Arts & Mines. By now, Broadway had become more or less tame, because more familiar. Even the topography had flattened out, as if the road was feeling weighed down by buildings that grew steadily taller, and the rare shop windows were selling such essential items as Halloween costumes for dogs. By the time I had reached Columbus Circle, the effigy of the robed discoverer looked absurdly puny against the bulk of the buildings.

There was welcome green relief of London plane trees at 107th with the tiny triangle of Straus Park, named in honour of the Macy’s founder – with its sad 1913 memorial to Isidor Straus and his wife Ida, who insisted on staying aboard the Titanic to drown with her husband.

Lovely and pleasant were their lives, and in death they were not divided

runs the inscription from the Book of Samuel, below an unsuitably languid Art Nouveau female bronze. Civilized-looking people sat on benches and read books while traffic thundered past just a few feet away – the racket muffled somehow by the trees.

At Times Square, the neons were blazing details of fizzy drinks and frothy shows, and Broadway heaved with technology-hung drifters wearing refugee chic of T-shirts, anoraks and jeans – the lackadaisical livery of individualists everywhere. Even the mixed-sex, multicultural and frankly unfit-looking police in Times Square seemed to be falling out of their uniforms – the antithesis of the tall stern Irish cops of yore.

But there were more focused presences – an orange-tabarded trade union demonstration, hundreds of capable-looking men bearing placards reading “Proud to be Union”, who looked extraordinarily out of place in this epicenter of indulgence. And there was an even more surprising irruption, as with a Harley-Davidson howl bounced back from the buildings, Broadway was captured briefly by 70-80 bikers, all young black men, helmetless, some wearing rubber gorilla masks, coming at speed into the Square, led by three riders abreast doing wheelies as they stared about arrogantly, like a combination of Mad Max and Planet of the Apes. The police gaped, normal traffic scrambled to the side and phone-cameras were flashed by weakly-grinning watchers who did not realize that this was intended as intimidation, a play for dominance and a defiance of the cops – who indeed had no time to respond before the phalanx had passed out of sight, if not out of hearing. Two minutes after the rumbling bikes had gone, a lone police car headed off in insincere pursuit, its thin siren a gnat-noise compared to the ruckus of the riders.

Frances Trollope (mother of Anthony) liked New York, particularly Broadway, although chiefly only by comparison with the rest of America, which she eviscerated in her dyspeptic 1832 book, Domestic Manners of the Americans. Even while lavishing praise, she could not resist a waspish aside:

This noble street may vie with any I ever saw, for its length and breadth, its handsome shops, neat awnings, excellent trottoir, and well-dressed pedestrians…If it were not for the peculiar manner of walking, which distinguishes all American women, Broadway might be taken for a French street.

She was less susceptible to Broadway’s thespian amusements, saying of the non bon ton Chatham Theatre:

I observed in the front row of a dress box a lady performing the most maternal office possible, several gentlemen without their coats, and a general air of contempt for the decencies of life, certainly more than usually revolting.

I wondered what she would make of Broadway now. She might have enjoyed the “farmers’ market” in Union Square – not real farmers but organic campaigners, but bringing a glad smell of hinterland to the city’s over-angular heart. The closer one gets to Wall Street, there is a semblance of civilization in the shape of well-dressed bankers (although Mrs. Trollope would have loathed their employment) and there are a few buildings that would have been standing when she was in the city – including the Dutch-gabled “Deutsches Haus” ar Washington Square (so human-scale I wanted to touch it), the Fraunces Tavern and St Paul’s Chapel.

She probably entered the Trinity Church that then stood on the site of today’s well-mannered building, and would have curled her lip superciliously at the orthography on Obadiah Hunt’s monument, who had died in 1760 at 84 –

From Birmingham in Warwick Shire With his wife Susannah from Credley in Heartford Shire In Oldingland

These Oldinglish are lost in the graveyard loam, along with Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton, thousands of remains banked up behind a restraining wall that looms over passers-by oblivious to the proximity of so many predeceased.

Even the generally nil admirari Mrs. Trollope might have been quietly moved in St Paul’s Chapel, where 9/11 is still raw to the touch. The first time I had been in St Paul’s had been during my first visit to New York, just a month after the attacks, when every surface was covered with photographs of the terrible day, portraits of missing people, anguished appeals for information, ribbons, flowers, flags and pieces of dead firemen’s uniforms. Even my non-American eyes had been pricking, and it had been strangely hard to swallow, as a group of teenagers came together as an impromptu choir, and sang The Star-Spangled Banner with tears streaming unashamedly down their fresh faces.

After nine years, the Chapel still has a similar capacity to move strangers, with its folk art 18th century US Seal above Washington’s Pew, a crudely lettered banner reading


and its permanent display of photographs and a fireman’s uniform surmounted by a police helmet, almost hidden beneath badges donated by emergency services from across the world – recalling those amazing weeks when almost the entire world felt, like Le Monde, that “We Are All Americans”.

Just behind the Chapel lies a sere bone-yard of smashed and standing stones, old trees that outlived the WTC, and a bronze cast of the root system of one tree that did not. Just across the road, Ground Zero sits and steams, while cranes hoist huge girders in pursuance of a vast rebuilding that feels like it will never be complete.

On again I went at last, the road running away with me again, compelling me to finish what I had started – backwards through American history between cliffs of glass and the Canyon of Heroes. Then at last I came to Battery Park and Castle Clinton and beyond a wideness of sky and Bay. I tried unsuccessfully to imagine da Verrazano’s ship tacking up the reach to anchor off the wooded island, the first of many to realize the potential of this prize. What he set in motion in 1524 would reach its denouement for the Alonquians in 1626, for the Dutch in 1664, for the British in 1783, and if the northern end of Broadway was anything to go by, might someday see the overthrow of the Anglos.

Straight ahead, several miles away, Liberty’s vast verdigris virgin was framed perfectly by mooring posts topped by seagulls. Crowds of other travellers were there in the park at the end of the road, talking, laughing and photographing each other with the statue as clichéd backdrop. I took my own to prove that I too had been there, and as a coda to my Broadway album. Suddenly tired, I sat down for the first time in seven hours and stared out across the storied waters, dreaming of arrivals and departures.

This article appeared in Chronicles in October 2011, under the title of “An Englishman in New York”, and is reproduced here with kind permission. Photos by Derek Turner