Recently I was asked to write a piece about Britain and why my time travel novel, The River of No Return, is set in that country rather than in my own. It was a curiously difficult piece to write. I’ve now spent nearly two decades shacked up with a Brit, I’ve lived in England for years on end, I’ve done the usual reading of novels that either romanticize or despise it. It’s a complicated place for me. I ended up deciding to write about Britain as a fantasy space, and if you’re interested you can read that piece, here:
But before I wrote that piece, I found myself thinking back to the first time I lived in London, when I was twenty years old. Back when Britain really was brand new to me. It was an amazing six months, partly because of my beloved English professor David Young, who took me and twenty other Oberlin students to London. He introduced us to the theater, but more than that, to good living and a certain relaxed relationship to intelligent conversation . . . he showed us that a life of the mind is a life of joy.
But my semester was also magical because of the accident of where I lived during those months. Ten other Oberlin students and I were crammed into an old Georgian row home in Bonnington Square, in Vauxhall -- a London neighborhood on the south bank of the Thames. We were all English majors, and we were spending a semester taking a class on the history of the “masque” and going to as many plays as we could fit in.
It was an incredible semester, and Bonnington Square was at the heart of it. The old 18th century Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens -- so notorious, so perfectly naughty, and now dwindled to nothing but a bare, dock-infested expanse of lawn -- were 100 meters away. We used to walk across that scrubby green and wonder if the sex, the thrills, the theater of the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens had soaked into the earth, or whether they were gone –dissipated into the sky.
A new garden – Bonnington Square Garden – was being crafted on our doorstep. It had been a bomb-site, and then a wasteland of stinging nettles -- now neighbors were coming together to make it into something rich and wondrous. Our neighbors to the left were squatters with the most amazing sense of style -- we watched as they transformed their house from a Georgian ruin into a grungy, post-industrial palace. An array of caravans painted with mysterious symbols turned up each month at the full moon, disgorging druids and witches – apparently a “ley line,” an ancient path that some said was a source of magical power, ran through Bonnington Square. Down the road the Bonnington Square Café, which had started as a squat café and which served up rib-sticking vegan treats by candlelight, drew us in at lunchtimes, and we would stay all day, wondering if there were anywhere like this, anywhere at all, in America.
We adored Bonnington Square. My friends and I, rolling out of bed late after a long night at the theater and then in the clubs, where we dressed like fallen angels and danced until we saw god, used to sit on the steps drinking our coffee and watching the square. There the squatters would come, heaving some talismanic metal object they had found in the defunct marble factory around the corner, or discarded on the street. There was the community coalition, digging in their patch of bomb-scarred earth. A druid leaned against his caravan, sucking on a cigarette and watching us through narrowed eyes. His girlfriend stuck an arm out a tiny open hatch, and he passed the cigarette through to her.
It felt as if history were unhinged here in this little square, as if everything that had ever happened was being remade and repurposed, and even we had our place in it – for weren’t we the 18th century pleasure seekers, so young and flamboyant, who came here from afar to a fleeting, lantern-lit masquerade, our eyes dazzled by fountain shows and fireworks, intent upon nothing more than play and dalliance?
I found myself thinking about Bonnington Square again as I wrote The River of No Return, which is a big, genre-mash up of a time travel novel, set largely in London. It’s part spy adventure, part sci-fi epic, part romance – and although my characters never go anywhere near Vauxhall, either in 1815 or in 2013 – the novel is also part Bonnington Square.
In The River of No Return, the characters travel through time on currents of human emotion. My time travelers, who all share a rare talent, are able to move with the undertow of human feeling below the still surface of the present. My characters are dislocated in time by the violence of war, and they try, perhaps fruitlessly, to rebuild beauty from the wreckage. Because my characters exist in many various times, they have a somewhat Robin Hoodish attitude to property and to wealth. And because they are dislocated, adrift, they are masqueraders, seeking what pleasure they can grasp from the always disappearing world around them, and from the warm, willing “naturals” who live their lives from day to day, without ever suspecting that time is malleable and that history itself is up for grabs.
If the ley lines and the squatters and the bomb garden and the pleasure gardens are all to be found threaded through The River of No Return, so is joy. I have spent many semesters in London since then, but none of them so perfectly delightful. As a scholar and a historian I have spent countless days thinking about the way that the past penetrates the present, but I have never experienced it with such picaresque sparkle as I did across those six months. I wrote the novel to make myself happy – I intended to make a big cake layered up with the many pleasures of many genres and with the voluptuous details of many eras. And I did make myself happy! But perhaps I was simply remembering a happiness I already knew, writing a chronicle of that one, perfect semester in that one, magical square.
Bonnington Square – like the rest of London – has changed enormously since 1992. But it is still itself. It hasn’t been uprooted and destroyed. The squatters are still there. You can watch a video about them here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/video/2010/jul/06/sustainable-squatting-bonnington-square
The café is still there. The garden is still there. Gentrification has happened and yet Bonnington Square has managed to maintain itself, at least partially, as a space that exists slantwise across that superhighway to bourgeois appropriation. And I am so very grateful that I got to be there, fleetingly, like a ghost, for a brief moment long ago.