Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Dignity and Urgency in Edinburgh and London

Academic journal article Michigan Quarterly Review

Dignity and Urgency in Edinburgh and London

Article excerpt

On a disappointing patch of concrete, just south of a bridge that is itself in many respects disappointing ("I know it's called London Bridge, young lady, but trust me, the one you fancy for your photo is Tower Bridge, and you can see it from here ..."), stands a disappointed man in a cut-rate Beefeater costume, his face smeared in ghoulish white pancake. At this moment he's plying his trade, passing out flyers for a spooky history tour. At his advanced age, it was the only position for which the firm would consider him: a job that is stale and silly beyond words. His parade gloves fumble with the texture of the card stock and his face paint conceals a steady scarlet flush. The makeup is doing him a great favor-it masks the bottomless shame of a broken old man beneath a harmless grotesque. I don't believe I'm being too hard on this fellow, for I ought to know him better than anyone: he's me.

Behind me flows the tumult of the Thames, an ocean that makes its living impersonating a river. The thick brown water churns and crashes in waves, throwing up spray and exhaling its brackish breath onto the streets of London: great, invisible puffs of sea salt with a dark, peaty finish.

This entire neighborhood is a masquerade, a historical caricature. An enormous prop shaped like the old Globe Theatre stands in the middle distance, and half the tourists don't know it's a counterfeit. A Greek with bushy eyebrows fingers an oboe alongside a nimble Lithuanian playing Zydeco on a busted harmonium. I'd wager that neither has paid a visit to the American bayou.

I remove the hand mirror from my bum bag and, with a cotton bud, reapply the bloody scar that's meant to split my nose. The man in the mirror is no longer Anthony Nibley (who, in my opinion, ought to be long-retired and frittering away his afternoons at the local pub), but Beefeater Bill, a kind of historical zombie-man who, according to my backstory, was killed by axe-wielding ruffians outside the Tower of London. It's simpler, if not preferable, to imagine that certain events happen to Beefeater Bill and not to myself.

On his lunch break, Beefeater Bill wanders the Borough Market. He buys a warm pint of Speckled Hen, a Bramley apple, and a packet of sausage-and-mustard-flavored crisps. "Ten bob," says the man at the counter. Too much, thinks Beefeater Bill. It's what he makes in an hour.

After lunch, its back to crying, "See spooky London, see the bloody Tower. See the dark and winding alleys where Jack the Ripper stalked his helpless victims. See the Banqueting House where Charles the First lost his head. Only £28.50." This fee includes a Jack the Ripper-branded top hat, free of charge, VAT included. Some of the passersby accept his flyers. Most ignore him. Others ask for directions. After three months on the job, he's stopped giving out street names entirely. Now, he says,"Follow this road for three H&M's and bend left when you reach the second Pizza Express."

Beefeater Bill has no dignity. It's been bled from him, teaspoon by teaspoon, pooling on the ground for the distracted lot who have come to see the famous London Bridge ("No, sir, I believe it's the Tower Bridge you're thinking of"). They receive a proper sideshow, free of charge, the spectacle of an old clown in a puffy pom-pom cap, debasing himself for a hair beyond the minimum wage ("What do you think you know, old man? The song doesn't go, 'Tower Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down,' now, does it?"). Neither his wife, nor his son, nor anyone, really, knows how he earns his keep.

The worst bit is that it may not even be necessary. Beefeater Bill's been breaking his back to pay for Lilly's stay in the care home, but the laws have been blowing lightly in and out and suddenly sucking back, like curtains billowing in an open window. One year they're declaring you pay nothing if you've less than a certain amount in savings, and the next they're claiming you must pay for everything, no matter who you are, until you've met their excessive deductible. …

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