Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Post-Postmodernist Cane Shop

Nine years ago in London, Mrs. Buce declared herself in need of a cane walking stick. I consulted my friend Richard who hied us off to James Smith & Son Umbrellas Ltd Est Since (sic?) 1830, at the shag end of New Oxford Street, just before it morphs into Theobald's Road.  It certainly was the very essence of what would want out of a Victorian London retail establishment solid and respectable enough that you could easily picture Prime Minister Gladstone showing up for his periodic umbrella fix (Neville Chamberlain to, I suppose, though perhaps they don't talk about this so much).

Last week in London, Mrs. B. declared herself in need of a replacement cane walking sticthe nine-year-old item having earned, so she felt, an honorable retirement (or at least "senior status" with limited caseload, like the Federal judiciary) and I am pleased to report that James Smith is still doing business in the old-fashioned way,  not one jot iota having been altered in the meantime (save and except some evidently scrupulous dusting and polishing).

This is all wonderful and no doubt the hope of this frisson of satisfaction is part of what drew us back to our former haunts, or haunt.  But all of this urges the question: after 180 years of sedulously exemplifying a particular tradition, can there be anything--anything--that remains of their original unselfconscious self? Mustn't it be true that at this point, just every fragment of the array must be understood as a form of marketing designed perhaps primarily for wide-eyed foreigners who loved to believe--even as they do not really believe--that There'll Always be an England, as long as there is James Smith?

I do not wish to be understood as complaining here.  I will take all this unironized irony with all the grace I can muster and salute them for not falling headlong over into the bin of self-parody.  But I remember another trip to England a few years ago when we spent Christmas Eve at Canterbury Cathedral.  The music was gorgeous (the weather outside was awful, which helped).  And the Canon--the Canon looked for all the world like he ought to be in the cast of a Victorian soaper (probably a Trollope) on Mawsterpiece Theatre.  I found myself wondering: did Mawsterpiece Theatre copy this guy, or did he get to be Canon because he looked like he ought to be on Mawsterpiece Theatre.  I think I  need a pick-me-up.  No thanks, not sherry.

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